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Are You Unknowingly Being Tracked by an Apple AirTag?

January 1, 2021

By Brian Hews

Have you ever heard of an Apple AirTag? An AirTag is a 1.26-inch disc with location-tracking capabilities that Apple started selling earlier this year as a way “to keep track of your stuff,” users attach it to their keys, wallet, purses and backpacks in case they misplace or lose them.

The device is a puck-shaped gadget that’s 0.31 inches in height. All in all, it’s about the size of a piece of Mentos candy. It will fit into most wallets, although it won’t fit as nicely as if it were as thin as a quarter or the shape of a credit card.

The device is equipped with Bluetooth technology and emits a digital signal detected by devices running Apple’s mobile operating system. Those devices then report where an AirTag has last been seen.

The device is connected to Apple’s location-tracking network, called “Find My,” triggering alerts to unknown iPhones they travel with.

Privacy groups sounded alarms about the coin-sized location-tracking devices when they were introduced. Now people are concerned those fears are being realized.

In recent months, people have posted on TikTok, Reddit and Twitter about finding AirTags on their cars and in their belongings. There is growing concern that the devices may be abetting a new form of stalking, which privacy groups predicted could happen when Apple introduced the devices in April.

Some authorities have begun to take a closer look at the threat posed by AirTags. One police department recently warned its community of the tracking potential of the devices after an AirTag was found on a car.

In another state, a local police department said that it had investigated five incidents of thieves placing AirTags on “high-end vehicles so they can later locate and steal them.”

The AirTag product page on Apple’s website notes that the devices are “designed to discourage unwanted tracking” and that they will play a sound after a certain amount of time of not detecting the device to which they are paired.

A report about a female that was at a friend’s home in Los Angeles when she received a notification on her iPhone: “AirTag Detected Near You.”

The 24-year-old didn’t own an AirTag, nor did the friends she was with. The notification on her phone said the AirTag had first been spotted with her four hours earlier. A map of the AirTag’s history showed the girl’s travels in her car as she drove across the city.

“I felt so violated,” she said. “Who’s tracking me? What was their intent with me? It was scary.”

Apple says they are secure, but AirTags present a “uniquely harmful” threat because of the number of Apple products that allow for more accurate monitoring of people’s movements.

True to form, Apple automatically turned every iOS device into part of the network that AirTags use to report the location of an AirTag. The network that Apple has access to is more extensive and more powerful than that used by the other trackers. It’s more powerful for tracking and more dangerous for stalking.

An Apple spokesman, Alex Kirschner, said in a statement that the company takes customer safety “very seriously” and is “committed to AirTag’s privacy and security.” He said the tiny devices have features that inform users if an unknown AirTag might be with them and deter bad actors from using an AirTag for nefarious purposes.

Apple says if users ever feel their safety is at risk, contact local law enforcement who will work with Apple to provide any available information about the unknown AirTag, such as the owner’s name.

But it has been reported that some people were unable to find the associated AirTags they were notified of and said the police do not always take reports of the notifications on their phones seriously.

One person was told by a police dispatcher that her situation was a non-emergency and that if she wanted to file a report, she’d have to bring the device with her to the station in the morning. She didn’t want to wait and disposed of it after taking several photos.

In June, Apple issued an update to AirTags to cause them to start beeping within a day of being away from their linked devices, down from three days. But most stated they don’t beep very loudly.

If you own an Android, your phone cannot detect an unwanted AirTag. Recently, Apple released an Android app that can scan for AirTags — but you have to download it and use it.

Called Tracker Detect, users can download to receive notifications, though that’s not a universal solution.

CNET published an article describing other ways to protect yourself:
Manually search yourself
The most basic form of protection is to manually search yourself and your car for places where an AirTag may have been slipped — the pockets of your clothes or bags, or under cushions, for example. However, this isn’t the most effective since AirTags are so small and can be easily hidden.

Try to narrow it down
If you suspect someone is using an AirTag or similar device to track you, you should consider what information they seem to know, and try to narrow down the items you have with you during those times. This can help you identify if something may be in your personal belongings, your car, or in your home.

Invest in a Bluetooth tracker
AirTags use Bluetooth signals to connect to Apple’s Find My network. You can use Bluetooth tracking apps to scan your area to see if an AirTag is nearby. While the apps won’t identify AirTags by name, they may help you see if there is an unknown device nearby. A couple options noted by Macworld include Bluetooth BLE Device Finder and BLE Scanner.

Find the AirTag’s serial number
If you do locate an AirTag on you, there are two ways to find the AirTag’s serial number without alerting the owner. If you have an iPhone, you can download Apple’s Find My app and hold the AirTag up to your device. Find the name of the AirTag and tap it. The serial number will appear under the name.

Alternatively, you can tap and hold the top of your NFC-capable iPhone or Android phone to the white side of the AirTag, then tap the notification that appears. The webpage that opens will show the serial number. (You can also find it on the battery by removing it, but that will make it so the owner can’t see your location.) Again, this information can be helpful if you end up needing to go to law enforcement.

Disable the AirTag
If you find an AirTag on you, you can easily disable it to stop sharing your location by twisting counter-clockwise on the back by the Apple logo and taking the battery out. The person on the other end will no longer be able to see your location.

However, suppose you find out that you are being tracked, particularly by a current or former intimate partner. In that case, domestic violence experts recommend coming up with a safety plan and consulting with a domestic violence service before turning off the tracker.

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