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In early January, Brooks Nader, a 26-year-old Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, was walking home alone from a night out in New York when she received a disturbing iPhone notification telling her she was carrying an “unknown accessory”.
“This item has been moving with you for a while,” the alert read. “The owner can see its location.”
That’s when she knew “something wasn’t right”, Nader told the NBC news program Today. Nader discovered that somebody had slipped an Apple AirTag into her coat pocket while she was sitting in a restaurant earlier. Unbeknown to her, the device tracked her location for four hours before Apple’s abuse prevention system triggered the notification to her phone.
AirTags are wireless, quarter-sized Bluetooth devices that retail for $29 each. Apple launched the product in April 2021 as tracking tools that users can pair with the company’s Find My app to help locate lost belongings, like backpacks or car keys.
Yet AirTags have proven easy to abuse – police in New York, Maryland, Idaho, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Texas and elsewhere both within the US and internationally, have reported instances of AirTags being used to stalk individuals, as well as to target cars for theft.
Last week, the New Jersey Regional Operations & Intelligence Center issued a warning to police that AirTags posed an “inherent threat to law enforcement, as criminals could use them to identify officers’ sensitive locations” and personal routines.
AirTags have abuse-mitigation features, including pop-ups like the one Nader received, and an alarm that beeps at 60 decibels (a conversational volume) after the AirTag has been away from its owner anywhere between eight to 24 hours.
Near the end of 2021, the company released a new Android app called Tracker Detect, which was designed to help people who own Androids discover suspicious AirTags near them – yet the app must be proactively downloaded and kept active to be effective, and is only compatible with Android 9 or higher.
The outcome of more anti-stalking mechanisms is that more people are realizing they are being stalked. On 14 January, police in Montgomery county, Maryland, responded to a call from a person who was stalked home from a movie theater after an AirTag was planted on their car. Around the same time, two California women called 911 after receiving a notification that their whereabouts were being tracked while out shopping. A 30 December report from the New York Times cites seven women who believe AirTags were used to surveil them. On social media, posts from mainly women sharing their own experiences of being tracked by AirTags have drawn attention to the issue, with one TikTok video from November 2021 receiving more than 31m views.
If you suspect you’re being tracked, the conventional wisdom is not to head home, but rather call – or go to – the police. However, law enforcement responses to incidences of AirTag stalking have thus far been inconsistent, and help is not always guaranteed.
When Arizona’s Kimberly Scroop went to local police after receiving an iPhone notification that she was being tracked in September last year, “they were not interested in taking a report, they didn’t take my name or phone number,” she says. “They said if I noticed someone following me, to call the police then.”
Scroop went home and made a TikTok video about her experience being tracked, thinking she should “make as much noise as possible, so there was some public record of it” online in case anything bad happened to her. “I was having a mini panic attack, just really scared,” she says in the post that has now been viewed more than 5.5m times.
In New York, Jackie’s Law – passed in 2014 to allow police to charge people using GPS tracking devices to stalk victims even if the victims have not pressed charges – contributed to police in West Seneca’s decision to subpoena Apple for information about a case involving an AirTag attached to a victim’s car bumper. Nonetheless, Nader claims she was unable to file a report after being tracked in Tribeca, New York City, as police told her no crime had been committed.
In an official statement, Apple says it will cooperate with police “to provide any available information” about unknown AirTags people discover on their person or property. “We take customer safety very seriously and are committed to AirTags’ privacy and security,” says a spokesperson.
Ultimately, their built-in anti-stalking mechanisms and the fact that they can be easily disabled when discovered render AirTags less dangerous than other forms of stalkerware. “If you really are nefarious and evil and you really want to find someone, there are things that are much better than an AirTag,” in the $100 to $300 range, says Jon Callas, director of technology projects at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Indeed, stalking affects an estimated 7.5 million people in the United States each year, and one in four victims report being stalked through some form of technology, according to the Stalking Prevention Awareness & Resource Center. And it’s on the rise: a 2021 international study by the security company Norton found the number of devices reporting stalkerware daily “increased markedly by 63% between September 2020 and May 2021” with the 30-day average increasing from 48,000 to 78,000 detections. There are thousands of different stalkerware variants, such as Cerberus, GPS tracking devices and Tile, a Bluetooth-enabled AirTag competitor that announced a partnership with Amazon last spring.
To Callas, the conversation around AirTags is drawing much-needed attention to the potential for technology to be misused; he hopes more people will consider the safety risks of tracking devices, regardless of how innocent they seem. “If you make a generalized technology that helps you find your lost keys, it can help you find anything,” he says, “and that includes people”.