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Apple’s AirTags are used for stalking, but the problem isn’t new, nor is it Apple-exclusive remotely – and is easier to perform undetected with other inexpensive methods. The real problem is the general failure of law enforcement agencies to act.
Reports of using AirTags to track people don’t give the full picture of the dangers of “harassment,” and reports often blame Apple entirely.
Apple isn’t the only one whose tracking devices can facilitate harassment, it’s simply the most prominent vendor for providing tracking tools.
In most cases, the problem is law enforcement. While Apple willingly cooperates with law enforcement to find a perpetrator, law enforcement agencies generally do not take reports of stalking revealed by AirTag security mechanisms seriously.
Here is additional context for the discussion.
Apple AirTag Harassment Reports
While AirTags can be used to locate stolen or lost property, small devices are also used to track people and track vehicles for subsequent theft.
A December 30 report from The New York Times contains reports from at least seven women who believe they have been tracked with AirTags. Earlier in December, Canadian police issued a warning that thieves were using the Apple tracking accessory to steal high-end vehicles.
Specifically, they had five reports of possible AirTag involvement, out of over 2,000 reports in total.
In stalking cases, victims have discovered that they are apparently tracked due to Apple’s anti-harassment features, which include mechanisms that notify iPhone users if they are “tracked” by an unknown accessory. . AirTags also beep regularly once separated from the device they’re paired with, but in our testing it could be much louder.
However, AirTags are small and can be hard to find. Some reports of harassment by AirTag indicate that victims are unable to locate an AirTag after being alerted to its presence.
According to Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, AirTags are “only dangerous” because the system uses Apple products – even ones you don’t own – for granular and accurate location tracking. With Apple devices ubiquitous, AirTags have a vast network to exploit.
However, this specific AirTag quirk isn’t the only difference between the Apple tracking accessory and other products. And, a bigger tracking platform is the LTE network itself, which is operated by hundreds of standalone products, similarly priced to AirTags.
And these products have no anti-harassment mechanism. Or, for that matter, any real way to detect or find them.
It would be a mistake to assume that these reports point to a new wave of criminal harassment. AirTags, while inexpensive and efficient, aren’t the only ones responsible for ushering in a new era of surreptitious surveillance.
Take for example, GPS-based stalkers. GPS tracking devices are readily available, even on Amazon, and can be used to track down victims without the anti-harassment mechanisms provided by Apple devices.
AirTags’ main competitor, accessories made by Tile, do not yet have anti-harassment features. These will arrive in early 2022, according to the company.
In fact, the harassment reports with AirTag stem from the anti-harassment features included by Apple. Without a notification alerting them to the secret tracking, stalking victims from another $ 30 tracker would have no idea they were being tracked.
This is not an absolution of Apple’s responsibility to deter harassment, and we believe Apple has a moral obligation to go a step further. A much bigger problem, and a deeper moral imperative, is getting law enforcement to take harassment alerts seriously.
Apple and law enforcement
Some police stations take this seriously and follow up on notifications and misplaced AirTags. This is good, and as it should be. It seems most aren’t, however.
In an ideal scenario, a victim of AirTag stalking could call law enforcement or go to a police station, show them their anti-harassment notification, and get the help they need on the spot. Once a victim is safe, police could get the tracking information they need from Apple to visit the owner.
However, most police services have not caught up.
In several cases in California, law enforcement informed victims of harassment that their anti-harassment notifications were not urgent. A woman was told that she should bring the AirTag with her to the station, which is the right thing to do.
Another said police told her that Apple’s notifications were not sufficient proof and that she could only file a report if someone showed up at her home. This is dangerous and irresponsible, given that Apple can and will respond to law enforcement inquiries about the owner of the AirTag in question.
Using 19th or 20th century techniques is not the way to deal with potential 21st century stalking cases. This type of nonchalant response from law enforcement puts people at risk.
There is an argument to be made that most local police departments do not have the resources to investigate every case of electronic stalking. At the very least, however, law enforcement has a responsibility to take the harassment allegations seriously and take five minutes out of their busy day to contact Apple about it.
It doesn’t even require a visit to Cupertino. There is a portal for law enforcement to issue requests and file subpoenas. And, Apple usually responds within 24 hours.
The burden of safety shouldn’t fall on the victims of harassment, but you need to know how to protect yourself. The answer is not to smash the label with a hammer.
If you have an iPhone, update to the latest iOS and take anti-harassment notifications seriously. If you have an Android, download Apple’s “Tracker Detect” application so that you can detect unwanted AirTags.
If you find an AirTag that has been planted on you or your vehicle, remove the battery. Then call the police and hope they are ready to help you. Hope should not be required for victims of stalking either.
Apple, for its part, should continue to refine its anti-stalking mechanisms. Reducing the time for unwanted accessory alerts is a start, as is increasing the volume of the separate AirTag automatic beep. Giving users the ability to see unwanted accessories in an AR view could make it easier to find and eliminate unwanted AirTags.
It is also up to the manufacturers of third-party trackers to issue their own anti-harassment mechanisms. Tile is working on its own security features, but any tracking device manufacturer should be required to implement anti-harassment features.
Police departments should also allocate resources to tackling electronic harassment, as GPS trackers have been in the field and used by criminals for almost 20 years. At the very least, they should be prepared to receive any AirTags discovered from victims, contact Apple about the owner, and keep them as evidence.
The solution to harassment by AirTag – or any type of harassment – will not be deployed by a single entity. It will take a joint effort to stop it, or at least make it much more difficult to achieve.