Apple and Google have combined forces to propose a solution to tackle the problem of some bad actors misusing location trackers for stalking purposes.

The two tech giants on Tuesday announced their rare collaboration to ensure that products such as the Apple AirTag, and other location-tracking devices from the likes of Tile, Chipolo, and Pebblebee, are not misused for stalking or unwanted tracking.

Apple had already sought to deal with this issue, and placed new privacy warnings during AirTag setup, warning people the devices are meant to track belongings, and tracking people without their consent is a crime.

Stalking problem

That move came after a number of reports of women being tracked by AirTags that had been placed, without their knowledge, in their coat, handbag, or even sometimes in their car.

Apple released its AirTag tracking devices on 20 April 2021, in a further expansion of Apple’s ‘Find My’ ecosystem. It was designed to help users keep track of their belongings.

It delivers precision finding by giving users the exact distance and direction to their AirTag, guiding them through a combination of sound, haptics, and visual feedback.

But it immediately triggered some privacy concerns, despite there already being rival offerings from firms such as Tile on the market.

Apple insisted that because it is part of the ‘Find My’ ecosystem, location data was kept private and anonymous with end-to-end encryption.

It should be noted that Apple iPhones automatically include a feature that alerts them when an AirTag they don’t own appears to be “following” them.

But two months after its launch, Apple in June 2021 released a software update after users complained that AirTags could be used to stalk people.

That update changed the window of time in which the AirTag will emit its sound warning – to a random time between 8 and 24 hours after the device is out of range of its owner’s iPhone.

And it took another six months for Apple to release its ‘Tracker Detect’ app to allow Android users to search for nearby active trackers, including Apple’s AirTag.

Apple, Google proposals

Now Apple and Google are working together on a joint solution, and have “jointly submitted a proposed industry specification to help combat the misuse of Bluetooth location-tracking devices for unwanted tracking.”

The first-of-its-kind specification will allow Bluetooth location-tracking devices to be compatible with unauthorised tracking detection and alerts across iOS and Android platforms.

The proposal is also backed by Samsung and the companies that produce other popular tracking brands including Tile, Chipolo, and Pebblebee, the companies said in a press release.

The specification has been submitted as an Internet-Draft via the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Interested parties are invited to review and comment over the next three months.

Following the comment period, Apple and Google will partner to address feedback, and will release a production implementation of the specification for unwanted tracking alerts by the end of 2023, that will then be supported in future versions of iOS and Android.

“Apple launched AirTag to give users the peace of mind knowing where to find their most important items,” said Ron Huang, Apple’s VP of Sensing and Connectivity. “We built AirTag and the Find My network with a set of proactive features to discourage unwanted tracking – a first in the industry – and we continue to make improvements to help ensure the technology is being used as intended.”

“This new industry specification builds upon the AirTag protections, and through collaboration with Google results in a critical step forward to help combat unwanted tracking across iOS and Android,” said Huang.

“Bluetooth trackers have created tremendous user benefits, but they also bring the potential of unwanted tracking, which requires industrywide action to solve,” said Dave Burke, Google’s VP of Engineering for Android.

“Android has an unwavering commitment to protecting users, and will continue to develop strong safeguards and collaborate with the industry to help combat the misuse of Bluetooth tracking devices,” said Burke.

In addition to incorporating feedback from device manufacturers, input from various safety and advocacy groups has been integrated into the development of the specification, the two firms stated.

This specification is a rare example of collaboration between the two tech giants.

That said Apple and Google have sometimes worked together in the past – most recently with a joint initiative during the Covid-19 pandemic to create contact tracing software.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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