Apple is placing warnings on its AirTag devices amid concerns the tracking devices are being abused by stalkers.

In a statement about unwanted tracking, Apple on Thursday said it is placing new privacy warnings during AirTag setup, warning people the devices are meant to track belongings, and tracking people without their consent is a crime.

It comes after a number of reports of women being tracked by AirTags that were placed, without their knowledge, in their coat, handbag, or even sometimes in their car.

Apple warning

Apple began its statement by citing  examples of its AirTag and the Find My app helping a customer track down their wallet at a station across town, or a parent tracking down a medical kit for their child who had lost critical medicine on a bus.

Tracking belongings was always Apple’s intention for its AirTags. But now Apple is having to take further action amid reports of AirTags being misused to stalk people.

“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,” said Apple.

“Unwanted tracking has long been a societal problem, and we took this concern seriously in the design of AirTag,” it said. “We’ve become aware that individuals can receive unwanted tracking alerts for benign reasons, such as when borrowing someone’s keys with an AirTag attached, or when travelling in a car with a family member’s AirPods left inside. We also have seen reports of bad actors attempting to misuse AirTag for malicious or criminal purposes.”

Apple said it has been working closely with various safety groups and law enforcement agencies to tackle this problem. This helped it identify more ways it could update AirTag safety warnings and help guard against further unwanted tracking.

Apple also revealed it actively works with law enforcement on all AirTag-related requests, and warned that AirTag have a unique serial number, and paired AirTags are associated with an Apple ID.

Potential stalkers should thus be aware, as Apple provides the paired account details in response to a subpoena or valid request from law enforcement.

But nevertheless, Apple has come up with a number of additional steps to address stalking concerns, including:

  • New privacy warnings during AirTag setup: In an upcoming software update, every user setting up their AirTag for the first time will see a message that clearly states that AirTag is meant to track their own belongings. It will also state using AirTag to track people without consent is a crime in many regions around the world, that AirTag is designed to be detected by victims, and that law enforcement can request identifying information about the owner of the AirTag.
  • Addressing alert issues for AirPods: Apple said there have been reports of users receiving an “Unknown Accessory Detected” alert. It confirmed this alert will not display if an AirTag is detected near a person – only AirPods (3rd generation), AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, or a third-party Find My network accessory. In the same software update, it will be updating the alert users receive to indicate that AirPods have been traveling with them instead of an “Unknown Accessory.”
  • Updated support documentation: Today Apple is updating its unwanted tracking support article on apple.com to communicate the safety features built into AirTag, AirPods, and Find My network accessories.

Apple is also exploring a number of updates it plans to introduce later this year, including:

  • Precision Finding: This capability allows recipients of an unwanted tracking alert to locate an unknown AirTag with precision. iPhone 11, iPhone 12, and iPhone 13 users will be able to use Precision Finding to see the distance and direction to an unknown AirTag when it is in range. As an iPhone user moves, Precision Finding fuses input from the camera, ARKit, accelerometer, and gyroscope to guide them to the AirTag through a combination of sound, haptics, and visual feedback.
  • Display alert with sound: When AirTag automatically emits a sound to alert anyone nearby of its presence and is detected moving with your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, Apple will also display an alert on a user’s device. This will help in cases where the AirTag may be in a location where it is hard to hear, or if the AirTag speaker has been tampered with.
  • Refining unwanted tracking alert logic: Apple plans to update its unwanted tracking alert system to notify users earlier that an unknown AirTag or Find My network accessory may be traveling with them.
  • Tuning AirTag’s sound: Currently, iOS users receiving an unwanted tracking alert can play a sound to help them find the unknown AirTag. Apple will be adjusting the tone sequence to use more of the loudest tones to make an unknown AirTag more easily findable.

Stalking worry

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.

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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