24-01-2022 | | By Robin Mitchell
A recent report on Apple AirTags shows that they are already being used to track individuals for potentially criminal purposes. What are AirTags, why are they a bad idea, and how does this demonstrate poor judgement?
Apple AirTags have made their way into the news multiple times, whether it has been their initial release or criticism on how they can be used for criminal purposes. Simply put, an AirTag is a tracking device that integrates a small processor, antenna, and battery that allows it to be attached to objects such as keys, phones, and wallets. If any of these items go missing, the Find My Device app can be used to locate the tag using ultra-wideband radio, and if the object in question still cannot be located, it can be made to emit an audible tone.
The ingenious design of Apple AirTags comes from their discrete size measuring just 32mm in diameter, 8mm in thickness, and 11g in mass. Furthermore, the use of ultra-wideband radio not only allows for accurate positioning. It also helps to reduce the energy consumed by an AirTag, which gives it long battery life. The resulting device is small and light enough to be affixed to most items, and the use of the Apple network allows for the tag to be tracked almost globally (so long as there are Apple devices with Fine My Device enabled).
While Apple AirTags can provide great convenience to those who frequently lose keys, wallets, and phones, their ability to be tracked with a great deal of accuracy makes them the perfect tool for stalkers. At Electropages, we predicted several months ago that AirTags would be used for tracking purposes, and a new report from the BBC confirms that this prediction has indeed come true.
People worldwide have reported unknown AirTags located on their persons, their vehicle, or in bags, and it is believed that these are being used to track individuals. Those who were contacted by the BBC all reported similar stories of unknown tags being detected by their phones, and upon contacting local police stations, learned that other people have also reported similar issues.
However, it has also been reported that the individuals who have detected unwanted trackers struggle to find them. The small size and weight of AirTags means they can very easily be attached to the underside of a car, seams of a jacket, or even in a hood of a coat.
To make matters worse, those who use AirTags for tracking can turn the devices off remotely. This means that devices can be used to track individuals back to their homes, note down the location, then turn off the AirTag to prevent the unsuspecting individual from learning of its existence.
In light of the criminal use of AirTags, Apple has developed multiple solutions that it believes will help mitigate these uses and protect individuals. For example, the software needed to locate AirTags has been released for Android users to protect all smartphone users. Furthermore, Apple has coded a randomised counter that will cause the AirTag to beep between 8 and 24 hours after being too close to the same individual.
Despite these attempts to fix tracking challenges, AirTags still pose a threat to individuals, and their use should be seriously reconsidered by both engineers and users. Just because a piece of technology can be developed does not mean that it should be deployed, especially if the deployment of that tech results in loss of rights, privacy, and security.
In the case of Apple, the idea behind AirTags was to create a tracking device for Apple users that would compete with Tile (another tracking device available to customers). However, just because there are companies on the market producing tracking devices doesn’t mean that Apple should have done so as well. This is the moral dilemma that continues to face engineers of the future; should we be developing technology without thinking about its use?
There is no doubt that tracking devices pose a serious risk to individuals, and it is true that tracking devices are widely available online. However, the difference between those devices and the Apple AirTag is that Apple has introduced tracking technology on a scale not seen before. Their extreme discreetness makes them the perfect tracking tool.