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AirTags: What are Apple’s new item trackers, and how exactly do they work?

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Andrew Griffin
·4-min read
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 (Apple)
(Apple)

Apple’s AirTags are about to arrive, after years of rumours.

The tracking tiles are intended to allow people to find items that might easily go missing, from bags to bikes to keys.

They are one of the smallest Apple products to be introduced, one of the longest awaited – and one of the first that you probably hope you never get to actually use.

Here is everything you need to know about them, ahead of the release of the AirTags on 30 April. They cost $29 or £29, or can be bought in a pack of four for $99 or £99.

What are AirTags?

Physically, they are the roughly size of a large coat button, and they look like one too: white plastic on one side, and metal on the other. That metal can be screwed off, and behind you’ll find the battery that powers them – a small CR2032 one, of the kind you can buy at the supermarket, when the roughly one-year battery life is up.

But more technologically, they are designed to be added to any item so they can be found when they are lost. They do that with a paired iPhone and a host of technology that makes it possible to find them – no matter how far away they’ve got.

How do they work?

The AirTags are paired and then connected over Bluetooth to an accompanying iPhone. Once they are connected, that phone can be used to find them, not just on a map wherever they are but with precise directions once you get close to them.

It does the latter using the U1 chip inside the AirTag and the iPhone being used to find it. That allows for ultra-precise location finding, meaning that the phone will be able to give you directions to the precise table and chair that keys were lost in, for instance.

But the real trickery is the way that the AirTags make use of Apple’s “Find My” network, which is made up of the nearly billion devices that are running the right Apple software. It means that the tags don’t need to connect to their owners’ phone to register where they are – but can instead ping almost any iPhone, which will then upload that information for their owner to use.

The AirTags can also bleep – the plastic side of the tag is itself a speaker – to make them easier to find.

What has Apple done to protect from abuse?

Apple stressed throughout the introduction of the AirTags that it was aware they could be used wrongly: that, if wrongly designed they could help an abuser track their partner without their consent or even knowledge, for instance.

To protect against that, Apple built in anti-stalking features that it says are an industry first. It means that if the system works it will be practically impossible to use them to track someone without their knowledge.

If an unknown AirTag appears to be travelling with someone that has an iPhone, for instance, they will receive an alert informing them of the fact; the AirTag itself will also make noises to ensure they are alerted to the tag. Users can also scan any AirTag and disable it.

Will they work for stolen items?

Many of the features that are integrated into the AirTags to ensure they cannot be used for harm also mean that their use when finding something that has been stolen – rather than just lost – could be reduced.

If a thief does not immediately notice the AirTag, then it will continue to track the device, using any other iPhones nearby – potentially including the thiefs own – to allow its owner to keep track of where it is going.

But once they get home, or a substantial amount of time has elapsed, the AirTag will begin to make its presence known to a thief. They will then be able to remove the tracking device from the item, and it won’t be possible to keep tabs on it anymore.

As such, it might be useful for finding items that are stolen and then disposed of, or for tracking them down in the brief period after the item is stolen. But their use on stolen objects might be limited otherwise.

Is my location data safe?

While Apple calls on its entire Find My network to help locate devices, that location information is kept to a much smaller group: the connection to the device’s owner is end-to-end encrypted, meaning that neither Apple nor any other devices that are used in the search will get information on the item they have helped locate.

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