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When Apple finally unveiled its long-awaited AirTag earlier this year, the new item tracking tag was almost instantly met with skeptical and slightly alarming concerns about how it could be maliciously used for tracking other people without their knowledge.
In a somewhat ironic twist, it was the very popularity and power of Apple’s Find My network that brought these types of issues to the surface and got people talking about them — which is definitely a very good thing. However, by no means did Apple’s diminutive new tracking tags present a new problem — it simply magnified an existing one, bringing it into the public consciousness.
After all, not only have companies like Tile had tracking tags on the market for years — with no anti-stalking security features built-in — but a quick search of Amazon will find dozens of inexpensive GPS trackers that can serve the needs of determined stalkers even more effectively than Apple’s AirTags, which rely entirely on nearby Apple devices to report their location.
Of course, the problem with AirTags compared to competing devices is that there are over a billion Apple devices out there that can participate in Apple’s Find My network. This makes it highly likely that an AirTag planted on an unknowing victim will be able to report its location much more accurately and frequently than, say, one of Tile’s tags, which can only be picked up by devices that have Tile’s app installed.
So, the conversations around AirTags and privacy weren’t at all unreasonable. Although in some cases the fears may have been a bit amplified — many still don’t understand that an AirTag has no inherent GPS tracking abilities — real-world tests showed that it was also “frighteningly easy” to use an AirTag for stalking. This is especially true in built-up urban areas with lots of Apple devices roaming around.
To be fair, Apple’s AirTag is the only tracking tag that offers any kind of privacy protections, but domestic violence advocates raised concerns that Apple still wasn’t doing enough to prevent the devices from being used for stalking, noting that the popularity of the AirTag and its extremely affordable price makes it a more accessible solution for those who may choose to use it to harm others.
An Earlier Warning System
Now, it looks like Apple has been listening to this feedback and is already making some course corrections. According to CNET, an AirTag firmware update is already rolling out to make an important change in how an AirTag will alert a user if there’s a chance they’re being tracked without their knowledge.
- After their initial release, Apple noted that a rogue AirTag will emit a noise after it’s been separated from its paired iPhone for more than three days.
- This alert is also triggered only when an AirTag is actually moved, which makes sense as you don’t want an AirTag sitting at home chirping away when the primary user is on vacation. Plus, an AirTag isn’t actively tracking someone if it’s not moving.
However, domestic violence advocates warned that this time frame was simply too long, especially in situations where a victim may be regularly returning to their abusive partner, as the three-day clock would reset every time the AirTag came back into proximity of its owner’s iPhone.
Now, in this new firmware update, which should be arriving on everybody’s AirTags over the next few days, this time frame has been reduced to playing a sound at a random time “inside a window that lasts between 8 and 24 hours.”
While some may argue that 24 hours is still potentially too long, the randomness of the timing should at least increase the odds that a stalking victim might find a rogue AirTag on their person sooner, rather than later.
This also only applies to people who don’t have an iPhone or iPad running iOS 14.5 or later. iPhone and iPad users will receive notifications much sooner when an unknown AirTag has been found moving around with them. These notifications also provide instructions on how to disable the AirTag by removing the battery, and even report it to law enforcement if the person feels that their safety has been compromised.
Android App and Detection
As great as the iPhone detection features are, however, perhaps the biggest privacy and safety question that Apple has been asked since AirTags came out is why Android users are being left out in the cold.
Granted, an AirTag placed on a non-iPhone user won’t provide the same kind of near-real-time tracking, but as multiple real-world tests have shown, it could still be enough to help a stalker discover critical information like a victim’s home address or other locations they frequent.
Basically, as long as the victim is within a couple of dozen feet of an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, their location will be reported back to the Find My network. This means an AirTag probably won’t be able to track you if you run off into the woods, but it’s much more likely to report your location at the mall, the gym, or even a friend’s house — especially if they own an Apple device.
According to CNET, Apple plans to address this by releasing an Android app for the Find My network.
This will also extend protections not just to AirTags, but also to any other Find My compatible device, such as Chipolo’s ONE Spot.
At this point, it looks like the Android app will be designed solely for detecting an AirTag or other Find My network-enabled device that may be unknowingly travelling around with them, in the same way that iOS 14.5 does natively.
Unfortunately, this will still require Android users to actually install the app on their devices. In an ideal world, Apple and Google would come up with a way to build this feature into the Android operating system, much like how the two companies collaborated on building a COVID-19 Exposure Notification System. While we can still hope that they may be able to figure that out someday, a standalone app is entirely under Apple’s control and doesn’t require any special cooperation from Google, so it’s an easy way to start.
When’s It Coming?
Apple notes that the AirTag firmware update to adjust the notification interval is already rolling out, and will be automatically applied to any AirTags that are within range of an iPhone, in the same way that AirPods silently receive firmware updates in the background. It’s less clear if the update has to come from an AirTag’s paired iPhone or if any iPhone running iOS 14.5 will be able to update any AirTags found nearby.
It looks like the Android app is going to take a bit more time, however — it’s not expected to be released until later this year. Apple also hasn’t said much about what else the app will be able to do other than detecting and alerting users to rogue AirTags and other Find My network accessories, saying that it will share more details later this year.
[The information provided in this article has NOT been confirmed by Apple and may be speculation. Provided details may not be factual. Take all rumors, tech or otherwise, with a grain of salt.]