What is an Apple AirTag and is it Dangerous?

GPS locator device, with Tracking tag icon and Alert icon on a table
Click here for a quick guide
A Quick Guide: What is an Apple AirTag and is it Dangerous?

For around $30, you can buy a tracking device (about the size of a half-dollar coin) from Apple called an AirTag. Just hook one on your keychain, slip them in your purse or backpack and you’ll be able to track your essentials down with your iPhone or iPad in case of loss or theft. Parents have even tucked these homing beacons in their kids’ shoes to keep a watchful eye from afar.

While it’s proven to be a useful gadget, a few bad apples have used them for illicit purposes. Numerous women have reported finding AirTags in their purses, jacket pockets, or even diaper bags after public outings. Victims have found them in their vehicles, supposedly planted by car thieves tracking their targets.

Here’s what Apple has done to prevent stalking and other crimes:

  • Apple released a software update in June 2021 to alert users if an unknown AirTag is following them within 8-24 hours.
  • Users can quickly and easily disable AirTags by following prompts on their iPhones.
  • In February 2022, Apple announced plans to cut that alert time down, make unknown AirTags easier to find and cooperate further with law enforcement. Changes are expected by late 2022.
  • Android users can download apps like Apple’s Tracker Detect to manually scan for unknown AirTags near them. Tracker Detect Pro and AirGuard are alternative apps.

For a deep dive into AirTags, how they work, and how to detect and disable them, read our full article below!

In April 2021, Apple released one of its latest products to their tech ecosystem — AirTags. These 1.26-inch tracking discs do more than just keep your car keys or wallet safe from the bowels of your couch cushions. In some cases, strangers are using AirTags to track peoples’ movements.

Imagine waking up at a friend’s place after a night out on the town. You slip your jacket on to head out the door, and you feel something in your pocket. You pull out the white and silver disc, an AirTag. It’s not yours and your friends say they certainly didn’t put it there.

Since AirTags only have one purpose — tracking — it leaves you with an uneasy feeling in your stomach. Panic is unnecessary, but it’s important to understand how AirTags work and the stalking risks that come with them.

What is an Apple AirTag?

Apple AirTag icon

Just over an inch in diameter, an Apple AirTag is a pocket-sized tracking device about the size of a half-dollar coin. They’re so small that when slipped into a purse or jacket pocket, they’re hardly noticeable. Personalize your AirTags with emojis or text, so they never get mixed up with someone else’s.

There are options to attach the devices to leather or silicone keyrings, too, so you don’t have to worry about them getting lost in the depths of your bag.

AirTags use Bluetooth and ultra wideband technology to transmit location data, paired to your Apple ID, so you won’t lose track of any essential accessories like keys, headphones, wallets, or backpacks.

Prices start at $29 (or four for $99) so you can clip one to your keys, slide one in your backpack pocket, and slip another in your wallet. The AirTag battery lasts more than a year and can be replaced. It doesn’t use any data so battery life isn’t be affected by use. It’s also water-resistant for up to 30-minutes.

How Do Apple AirTags Work?

AirTags work by sending out a Bluetooth signal to the iCloud which is picked up by Apple devices in the “Find My” network including iPhones, Mac devices, and iPads.

If you have a knack for losing things, you can open Apple’s Find My app and see where your AirTag is located or ask it to sound a “ping” using built-in speakers.

Follow the app’s directions or the sound and you’ll find your keys lodged between last night’s popcorn bowl and the couch cushion. Depending on how old your iPhone or iPad is, AirTags will work a little differently to get you to your lost items:

  • Newer iOS models: For iPhones 11, 12, and 13 (with a U1 chip), AirTags take advantage of ultra wideband technology. This tech locates your item down to the centimeter using a short-range connection via radio waves and operates on very high GHz frequencies. What this means is that users can follow arrows to find the precise location of their missing item.
  • Older iPhones and iPads: For older iPhones and iPads updated to iOS 14.5 and iPadOS 14.5, Apple AirTags depend on the Bluetooth signals of other Apple devices around you (within 30ft) to locate your items. Apple says that every step of this process is encrypted so no one can get information about you or your device through the AirTag.

Only Apple users can pick up AirTag signals by default. Android users must download apps like the Apple-designed Tracker Detect to scan AirTags near them. You can also use other apps like Tracker Detect Pro or AirGuard for Android.

Are Apple AirTags Dangerous?

Apple AirTags, are they dangerous iconUnfortunately, technology is at the whim of user intent, for better and for worse. In a recent statement, Apple said “AirTag was designed to help people locate their personal belongings, not to track people or another person’s property, and we condemn in the strongest possible terms any malicious use of our products.”

AirTags were not designed to be dangerous and users benefit from end-to-end encryption and an advanced alert system. Still, consumers claim Apple still has work to do to protect consumers from AirTag misuse.

Consumer concerns about AirTags

Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Brooks Nader said she was stalked by a stranger who put an AirTag in her coat pocket and followed her for five hours. Many other victims have also reported finding AirTags that were planted on them or in their belongings without their knowledge — presumably placed there by someone else to track their movements.

Some victims have even reported finding AirTags in their cars. Authorities suspect car thieves are also using AirTags to mark their targets.

Protect your family or property

On the other hand, consumers have also used AirTags to protect their property, like a woman who used an AirTag to catch her moving truck driver in a lie about his location. Others have used AirTags to track critical medical kits their children travel with regularly. A mother in New York put an AirTag in her daughter’s sneakers and found out her bus driver had dropped her off at the wrong school.

AirTags are lightweight and inconspicuous which gives them the potential to be both helpful and harmful. However, Apple has put safety features and privacy policies in place to protect users. More on that a little later.

Apple Combats Stalking

Apple side-stepped stalking concerns by creating a feature that will let users know if there is an unknown AirTag tracking them. If you arrive home or within a day, you will receive a notification on your Apple devices — even your Apple Watch — about the unknown AirTag, according to Apple. If you don’t find the AirTag after a day, the AirTag chimes so you know it’s there.

When Apple initially rolled out AirTags, it could take up to three days for an alert to show up on your phone that an unknown AirTag has been “found moving with you.” However, in June 2021, a few months after the product hit the market, Apple sent out a software update to increase customer safety. This shortened the window to alert someone of a stalking AirTag from three days to 8-24 hours.

Apple also says that the Bluetooth signals used in AirTags and the Find My network have unique identifiers that change often, to prevent users from being tracked when they move from location to location.

Expected AirTag updates in 2022

Despite updates within months of AirTags coming to market, consumers continue to express concerns. In February 2022, Apple announced upcoming software updates to the trackers. These updates are expected in late 2022, and include:

  • Earlier notifications: Apple says it will make unknown AirTag alerts come faster than the 8-24 hour window.
  • Privacy warnings during set-up: Users setting up AirTags get a warning that using AirTags to track people without their consent is a crime in many parts of the world.
  • Louder alert sounds: Louder tones, making AirTags easier to find. Apple also said it will add a feature that makes an AirTag play a sound when moved if it hasn’t been with the user who registered it for an extended period of time.
  • Precision Finding for unknown AirTags: iPhone 11, 12 and 13 will be able to use Precision Finding to track unknown tags.
  • More specific accessory alerts: AirPods (which users complained often set off tracking alarms) will have their own specific alert.
  • Law enforcement documentation: All AirTags have a unique serial number, and are paired and associated with an Apple ID. Apple can “provide the paired account details in response to a subpoena or valid request from law enforcement.”

Apple stated, “Based on our knowledge and on discussions with law enforcement, incidents of AirTag misuse are rare; however, each instance is one too many.”

What to Do if an Unknown AirTag is Following You (iPhone or iPad)

If you receive a notification that an unauthorized AirTag has been tracking you, you can follow the prompts on your iPhone or iPad to learn more about the device or disable it. You’ll receive this through Apple’s built-in Find My app.

How to disable an unknown AirTag

  1. Click on the “AirTag Found Moving with You” notification on your iPhone or iPad. Then select “Continue.”
  2. If you haven’t found the AirTag yet, tap “Play Sound.”
  3. When you have the AirTag, tap it against your iPhone.
  4. Then, select “Instructions to Disable AirTag,” and follow the prompts.

Learn more about the AirTag

Now, the disabled AirTag is invisible to the owner. If you are concerned for your safety, keep the device (still disabled) and contact your local law enforcement. Later, you can tap the AirTag again to find out its serial number and other identifying information.

How to Scan for an Apple AirTag on Android

In December of 2021, Apple released an app for Android called Tracker Detect. With this app, Android users can manually scan for unknown Apple AirTags that may be tracking them.

To find and disable AirTags, you’ll need a device capable of near-field communication (NFC). NFC is how two devices exchange information without touching, over really short distances.

Screenshot of Tracker Detect App, Google Play

How to scan for AirTags with the Tracker Detect App for Android

  1. Download and install the Tracker Detect app from the GooglePlay store.
  2. Turn on your Bluetooth.
  3. Open the Tracker Detect app on your Android device.
  4. Tap “Scan.”
  5. If an unknown AirTag notification pops up, click on it.
  6. Next, choose from the options, “Play Sound,” “Learn About this Item Tracker,” or “Instructions to Disable.”
  7. Tap “Play Sound,” so you can find the tracker tag by following its chime.

To learn about the tag, tap “Learn About this Item Tracker,” and tap the AirTag on your phone. This enables the precision finding NFC tap in your NFC-compatible phone. Now, you can see the serial number and the last few digits of the phone number of the owner. Tags marked “Lost” by the owner will show a message explaining how the owner is to be reached.

If the tag is not marked as lost, disable the tag by tapping “Instructions to Disable.” Follow the prompts to remove the battery from the tag, disabling it.

How to Use an Apple AirTag

The danger shouldn’t put you off from using AirTags because the little trackers are actually helpful. Apple seeks to put the days of tossing cushions around your living room behind you and that’s how they were designed. Now that you know how the trackers work, here’s how to use them:

How to use an Apple AirTag on Apple devices

Connecting an AirTag to your iPhone or iPad is easy, but you do need to make sure it’s updated to iOS 14.5 or later. Here’s how you can set it up safely:

  1. Turn on two-factor authentication, Bluetooth, and the Find My app.
  2. Screenshot of Apple, Airtag, turn on Two-Factor Authentication
  3. Connect to the internet via Wi-Fi or data.
  4. Screenshot of Apple, Airtag, Turn On Wi-Fi
  5. Place your iPhone or iPad next to the tag.
  6. Screenshot of Apple, Airtag, Searching for AirTag
  7. Follow the one-tap prompt on your screen.
  8. Enter a name for your AirTag and select “Continue.”
  9. Attach it to the item you’ll keep tabs on and you’re done!

How to find an item using the Find My app

Locate lost items using your updated iPhone by following these steps:

  1. Open the Find My app.
  2. Select “Items” on the bottom menu. You will see your AirTag(s) on the map.
  3. Screenshot of Apple, Airtag, Find my map
  4. To locate a specific item, tap the item name in the items list.
  5. Tap “Play Sound” and listen for the AirTag chime.
  6. Tap “Directions” to get directions to the item’s location. If you are using an iPhone 11, 12 or 13 you can select “Find” (instead of Directions) and follow the arrows to go to the item’s precise location.
  7. If you can’t find your item, swipe up on the Find My menu, select “Lost Mode,” then tap, “Enable,” and finally “Continue.” Now, if someone finds your AirTag or you come into range of your AirTag, you will receive a notification.

Should You Be Worried About the Dangers of Apple AirTags?

Emptying your purse on the kitchen counter looking for AirTags after a night out is probably not something you need to add to your to-do list, but it’s important to be aware of the risk. It’s also important to remember to take basic safety precautions and be aware of your surroundings.

AirTags are designed so you find the things you always lose track of using the latest technology, like UWB. While iPhone users of pre-11 models and Android users can’t benefit from all the features of AirTags, they help anyone who wants to save time looking for their house keys every morning on their way out the door.

Apple AirTag: Frequently Asked Questions

Want to know more about AirTags? Read our FAQ to find out what people like you are asking about Apple’s new tracking devices.

An Apple AirTag uses Bluetooth and ultra wideband technology to track items belonging to the AirTag owner, like keys or a backpack. If someone slips an AirTag into your backpack, then yes, they can track your location until you find and disable the AirTag. Apple has released software updates alerting users that an unknown AirTag has been moving with them by notification or sound. For more information, read our full guide on AirTags.

If an AirTag is tracking you, your iPhone will send you a notification within 8-24 hours. Using your Find My app, you can locate the tag and then disable it. If you have an Android phone, you can download the app Tracker Detector from the Google Play store and manually scan for unknown AirTags near you.

Apple AirTags are used to help you keep track of items that you might misplace, like car keys or a backpack. Using Bluetooth and ultra wideband technology (for iPhones 11, 12, and 13), users can locate their missing items by following directions or a chime sound from the AirTag’s built-in speakers. However, some consumers claim stalkers are using the AirTags to track people’s locations by hiding them in their personal belongings.

If you are using an AirTag to keep track of your keys, purse, or backpack, AirTags are completely safe. They encrypt your data so no one, not even Apple, knows anything about you or the location of your AirTag. Only you do.

However, some people have reported stalkers slipping AirTags into the purses or pockets of unsuspecting victims to follow them. Others have said car thieves will place AirTags on cars to know when it is a good time to steal them. When used this way, AirTags pose a threat to the personal safety of the victims or their property.

Online Safety Journalist
Allison has an impressive research background and a drive to stay on top of the latest trends in cybersecurity to help others combat cybercrime and stay safe online. She has covered a variety of topics but is passionate about informing the VPNOverview readers on online safety and privacy, especially for children and teens.