In a Test, Apple AirTag Trackers Made It Terrifyingly Simple to ‘Follow’ Me.

Apple AirTag

Apple AirTags, which cost $30 and help you find items, function wonderfully. Surprisingly good.

If you attach a button-sized AirTag on your keys, it will help you find them if you drop them in the park. However, if someone sneaks an AirTag into your backpack or car without your knowledge, it might be used to monitor you everywhere you go invisibly. Apple AirTags is a new way of stalking that is both affordable and effective, in addition to helping you recover missing objects.

I know because I put AirTags to the test by having a UpdatedTime Post colleague pose as a stalker. Apple’s efforts to prevent the exploitation of its trackers just aren’t enough.

Apple put technologies into AirTags to notify prospective victims of “unwanted tracking,” including audio alarms and warnings about suspicious AirTags that come up on iPhones. My colleague Jack Caristo linked an AirTag with his iPhone, slid his tag into my bag (with my consent), and then monitored me for a week from across San Francisco Bay.

I received many warnings, both on my iPhone and through the disguised AirTag. However, it wasn’t difficult to uncover ways for an abusive spouse to get beyond Apple’s security measures. To give you an example: After three days, the sound alarm finally went off — and it was just 15 seconds of gentle chirping. Another example: While an iPhone warned me that an unknown AirTag was following me, comparable alerts aren’t accessible for the approximately half of Americans who own Android phones.

In an interview, Kaiann Drance, Apple vice president of iPhone marketing, remarked, “These are an industry-first, robust set of proactive deterrents.” “It’s a clever and customizable system, and we can keep refining the logic and timing to increase the set of deterrents,” says the researcher.

Apple has taken more steps to discourage stalking than smaller tracking-device competitors like Tile, which has done nothing thus far. AirTags, on the other hand, demonstrates how even Apple, a firm known for prioritizing security and privacy, may fail to comprehend all of the hazards inherent in developing technology that connects common objects to the internet.

“The intimate partner threat model is unique,” Corbin Streett, a technology safety specialist with the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told me. In general, companies are worried about their external environment. dangers, not with the individual who knows your favorite color and password and sleeps next to you at night.”

Apple AirTags will be a valuable convenience for most individuals, as they provide accurate tracking and a changeable battery. So what’s the point of focusing on these issues? Because personal technology isn’t just about you anymore. As a consumer advocate, it’s my responsibility to think about who technology benefits and who it damages. This is true of Apple AirTags, as well as Ring security cameras that unjustly police neighbors and social media algorithms that disseminate disinformation.

Experts warn that digital stalking is quite widespread and that it is directly connected to physical assault, even murder.

“I don’t expect products to be perfect the moment they hit the market,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a vocal opponent of the stalker was. “I don’t believe they would have taken the decisions they did if they had consulted even one specialist on intimate partner abuse,” she continued.

Drance refused to answer if Apple engaged domestic abuse experts before developing AirTags. “We don’t have any further information regarding the procedure to share.” “Of course, we’re interested in hearing from such groups,” she added.

Apple AirTag

I’m delighted Apple claims AirTags was created for updates, but some of the issues we found can’t be remedied with software — or with Apple inventing privacy remedies that only work for Apple consumers.

A Massive Network

We set up a test with Galperin’s help, in which my colleague acted like a stalker and I experienced what it would be like to be a target. While the experiment gave us a better understanding of how AirTags function, our little view into the realm of the stalker was paled in comparison to the dread of being stalked.

My colleague was able to pinpoint my whereabouts with astonishing accuracy after inserting an Apple AirTag in my backpack. When he linked the Apple AirTag to his iPhone, the tag’s location appeared in the Find My app, which comes pre-installed on all iPhones. (It began as a tool to locate misplaced Apple devices and has now extended to include other items.)

The Apple AirTag updated my location once every several minutes while I was riding my bike around San Francisco, with a range of around half a block. When I was at home and more sedentary My precise address was supplied on a colleague’s app.

How is it possible for such a little, watch battery-powered gadget to do such feats? AirTags, unlike phones and GPS devices, do not have cellular Internet access. Rather, they employ Bluetooth wireless signals — the same ones that power headphones — to alert other nearby Internet-connected gadgets to their existence. (AirTags also include ultra-wideband wireless technology, which makes them even more exact but requires newer iPhones.) Only the AirTag’s owner receives these location notifications; no one else is aware of their whereabouts.

The fact that AirTags can link with the hundreds of millions of Apple goods on the market to transmit their whereabouts with their owners makes them extremely efficient at tracking. Consider the following scenario: AirTags function everywhere an iPhone is within range.

Apple added one feature that might aid in the prosecution of persons who use their products for stalking. A fixed serial number is physically printed on each AirTag and is readable by Bluetooth. Apple might expose the identity of the iPhone the AirTag is registered if a court order is obtained.

However, the victim would have to first uncover the hidden AirTag, which is tougher said than done.

What Is That Noise?

Apple AirTag

The Apple AirTag he implanted on me began chirping its presence three days after I was separated from him. (You can hear it in the video that goes with this article.)

From three feet away, the sound measured at most 60 dB, which isn’t much louder than the birds chirping outside my window. It barely lasted approximately 15 seconds before the AirTag was silent for several hours before chirping again for another 15 seconds.

Isn’t this intended to protect people? Apple’s Drance remarked, “We do believe it’s a really clean, sharp sound.”

Worse, I discovered that pressing down on the AirTag’s white plastic cover, which has the speaker built in it, is a simple way to mute the speaker. A victim may not detect a chirping AirTag for days, if at all if he or she is encased in tight automobile seats or tape.

However, there’s a deeper issue: waiting three days to notify a victim allows for a lot of surveillance. When Apple picked that timeframe, Drance said the firm considered how alarms can annoy consumers who are only borrowing a family member’s rucksack or have mistakenly left an item behind. “We wanted to strike a balance between how these warnings go off in the environment and the unwanted tracking,” she explained.

Streett was concerned that an abuser may manipulate the alarm’s time. When an AirTag leaves the range of the iPhone it’s associated with, it sets off a three-day countdown clock on its alarm. Because many victims live with their abusers, the alert countdown might be restarted each night when the AirTag’s owner returns within range.

In many cases of abuse, the warning may never sound at all.

Apple AirTag

 

Notice that appears in the middle of the screen

Apple AirTag

The second key anti-stalking feature from Apple was more difficult to overlook: a notice on my iPhone that stated, “AirTag Found Moving With You.” It appeared when I got home after a meeting with a colleague.

How did my iPhone figure that out? If you have an iPhone 6S or newer with the current iOS software, the phone’s Bluetooth connection will seek nearby AirTags on a frequent basis. If you’re traveling with an AirTag that isn’t with its owner, the iPhone will detect it.

If the wording is a little convoluted, the iPhone helps these alerts stand out. When you tap it, you’ll be sent to the Find My app, where the first page says, “The owner of this AirTag may view your current position.” There was also a map of the areas I went to with the hidden Apple AirTag inside the Find My app, which was viewed by the possible victim. The software shows you how to disable the AirTag or temporarily quiet the warning by removing the battery.

Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t offer as much assistance as it might to those looking for an AirTag buried in their possessions. The offending AirTag can be made to create a sound using a button in the Find My app, however, this didn’t always work for me. (Perhaps there was interference or I wasn’t close enough to the AirTag?) However, none of the additional Find My app features allowing AirTag owners to locate their belongings, such as distance measurements between the iPhone and the AirTag, are available to unwanted track victims. Those tools are also required by potential victims.

The Find My app does not always give all of the information that stalker victims require. “I hope it would activate as soon as a tag that isn’t yours starts moving with you,” Streett remarked. The software also lacks a feature that allows users to quickly scan their surroundings for any AirTags to ensure their safety.

Galperin is suspicious that Apple considered all possible possibilities, such as an abuser swapping his AirTag with one belonging to his girlfriend. (If the victim returned to the house and the device rapidly linked to the abuser’s device, the alarm may not appear.) The warnings may potentially be more useful if they were adjusted to identify an AirTag in your car — one that moves with you regularly but then remains put where you parked, she added.

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Also troubling: You can turn off all of these “item safety warnings” via the Find My app, and you don’t have to input your PIN or password to do so. People who are subjected to abuse do not always have complete control over their phones.

Then there’s the main flaw in the alert system: Android users aren’t able to use it. “I’m quite concerned about security issues that must be resolved by purchasing an iPhone,” Galperin stated.

Some of Apple’s smart pop-up alert ideas might help not only iPhone users but also those who are followed by other devices like Tile. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if these companies banded together in such a way that all phones have built-in scanning for Bluetooth tracking devices?” Streett made a comment.

That has happened in the past. Google and Apple partnered last year to develop Bluetooth coronavirus exposure alerts. In our increasingly interconnected world, managing new dangers will need collaboration.

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