A little over a month ago Apple launched the AirTag, a nifty little gadget that helps people find their keys, wallet, bike and other belongings via the Find My app. Unfortunately, the small trackers turned out to be equally handy to stalk someone. Just slide it into someone’s pocket or bag and off they go…
Cool, Warm, Warmer, Hot…
An AirTag is a small round, lightweight, stainless steel Bluetooth tracker. It’s IP67 water- and dust-resistant and has a built-in speaker. This speaker plays a sound to help locate the tag. Users can name the tracker and match it with the item, e.g., “key”, “wallet”, or “bike”. Once an AirTag is set up, users can view all their tags in the Find My app. They can also ask Siri to find their item.
If an AirTag is out of the owner’s Bluetooth range or goes missing, the Find My network can help track it down. To do so, it relies on the millions of other Apple devices’ Bluetooth signals. Users who have an iPhone 11 or 12 can track their item down in a more granular way, leading them to an almost exact location, once the AirTag is again within Bluetooth range.
It goes without saying that the AirTag is a handy and discrete gadget to track your belongings. Unfortunately, it’s just as obvious that anyone could easily misuse the little tracker device. If someone slips an AirTag in a person’s car, bag or pocket without their knowledge, they can covertly track that person wherever they go.
Built-In Privacy Update
Apple thought about this too, of course. Therefore, they built in some privacy and security features. Firstly, data and location history are not physically stored on the AirTag. Secondly, communication with the Find My network is encrypted. Only the owner of the device can access location data. And thirdly, Apple included a feature to prevent unwanted tracking.
It’s this specific anti-stalking feature that Apple is now updating. Previously, this feature ensured the AirTag would play an alert to draw attention to it when separated from its owner. Apple had set a three-day time window for this. Now, the AirTag will make a sound and pop-up on someone’s device within a random timeframe of 8 to 24 hours from separation.
The user can pause or disable the alert for items they share with someone in their “Family Sharing” group, e.g., a set of car keys, a travel bag or a bike. People who find an AirTag or an item with an AirTag attached to it can also disable the alert – or simply take out the battery. If the owner marked the item as lost, the person might see a “Lost Mode” message on their smartphone when disabling the tag and will be able to contact the owner.
Unwanted Tracking Still an Issue
The new firmware update rolled out on 3 June and will be downloaded automatically when the AirTag is near a connected iPhone. While it’s definitely a step forward, the update definitely does not resolve all the privacy issues associated with tracking devices.
The timeframe still gives the owner plenty of time to stalk someone. Moreover, the time resets whenever the AirTag is again within Bluetooth reach. So, if the potential victim lives in the same house or in the apartment above or below, the update doesn’t solve anything.
Of course, privacy is, and will always be, an issue with Bluetooth trackers. Therefore, receiving a sound alert or safety alert when an unknown AirTag is traveling with you, is certainly better than receiving nothing. Additionally, the tech giant is working on an app for Android users. This app will be released later this year.