16-08-2022 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, an air traveller used an Apple AirTag to locate her missing luggage, which resulted in the arrest of an airline worker with over $16,000 of luggage recovered. What exactly happened at the airport, how do Apple AirTags work, and do they present privacy issues?

Airline worker arrested thanks to Apple AirTag

No matter how easy a journey is, air travel always induces some level of stress, whether it is long queues, being scanned by machines, random spot checks, and the need to look for the correct gate that is decided when the plane approaches the airport. Assuming that the plane is not overbooked and there are no mechanical issues, the plane will only take off and land if weather conditions are ideal, and after landing, there is always a small chance that the passport being used is rejected for whatever reason.

But it could be argued that one of the biggest fears at airports is luggage or the absence of it. Valuables placed into bags that are checked in go through a complex maze of transportation systems, and once they arrive at the plane, there is no guarantee that a disgruntled employee won't throw bags with little to no care for the contents. Worse, it is also possible that "random checks" result in missing items, and of course, it's never socks or pants that disappear, but laptops, phones, and jewellery.

Thankfully, the introduction of tracking devices such as the Apple AirTag can allow owners of such valuable track their position in real-time, and this has proven to be advantageous on numerous occasions. Recently, an air traveller faced this issue when her luggage failed to turn up at her destination. However, instead of being at the mercy of airport staff to try and find the luggage, the owner had installed an Apple AirTag into the case, which allowed staff to track its location.

After a short investigation, a sub-contractor working at the Florida airport was arrested on charges of grand theft. Additionally, another traveller also reported over $16,000 of luggage missing, which has been linked to the same individual who was arrested. While the goods have not been located (likely sold on), removing the sub-contractor will undoubtedly deter others from stealing luggage. 

How do Apple AirTags work?

While numerous tracking devices exist, Apple AirTags benefit from a multitude of technologies which makes them ideal for tracking high-valued goods

A typical tracker may utilise a GPS signal to identify its location on the planet and then use a cellular service to send this data to a remote server. However, GPS and cellular communication often require a lot of energy, making extended operation from a power source challenging. Using a larger battery is one option, but this significantly increases the weight. Reporting fewer real-time positions is another option, but it can be hard to track a device as locations are only sparsely reported. 

Apple AirTags, however, utilise an entirely different technology for real-time tracking and locating; Ultra-WideBand (UWB). Instead of using GPS for tracking and cellular signals for communication, Apple AirTags utilise a combination of Bluetooth and UWB that can be picked up by other UWB-supporting Apple products (such as iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks). Once an AirTag has been picked up by another Apple device, the location details are streamed to the iCloud so that the device's owner can identify where their AirTag is. The use of Bluetooth and UWB significantly reduces the energy consumption of the AirTag, meaning that it can operate for weeks on a single coin battery, and the lack of GPS removes the need for a clear view of the sky.

While the exact science of how UWB is used for tracking involves complex maths, the basics of UWB tracking come from how UWB transmits data. A traditional RF transmitter focuses on a single carrier frequency and then modulates either the amplitude, frequency, or phase shift to convey data. If something else tries to emit a signal on this frequency, it can cause interference which is why radio spectrums are licensed and protected by law.

In UWB, instead of transmitting a strong signal on a specific frequency, a very low energy transmission is made on a wide spectrum of frequencies (i.e. over GHz). A receiver using traditional technologies will not see this signal as interference as the energy emitted is extremely small. However, a receiver that looks at the entire spectrum of the UWB signal will see, on average, the average noise energy rise across all frequencies. As such, UWB can work alongside traditional technologies without causing interference.

Tracking with UWB is possible thanks to the use of a wide spectrum of frequencies and the use of extremely short pulses. Simply put, UWB devices use the time-of-flight principle whereby the time taken for a signal to be transmitted and received is measured, and the fixed speed of radio pulses allows for the distance to be inferred. Additionally, complex mathematics and advanced receivers can also be used to determine the angle of arrival and the distance and the angle relative to the receiver. 

Do Apple AirTags present privacy concerns?

The Apple AirTag has proven itself to be a tool that can be used for good and evil. In the case of the airport luggage incident, trackers can help fight against theft as they are difficult to spot, they don't show up easily, and are incredibly portable. Such tags can easily be integrated into the lining of luggage cases, inside device cases, attached to bags, and even hidden in the sole of a shoe. So long as the AirTag is within range of an Apple device, its position is transmitted to the iCloud, allowing the tag owner to find out where it is.

But this ability to track also introduces serious issues with privacy and safety. One blatant misuse of such devices is the ability to track individuals without their knowledge. There have been numerous reports of people finding AirTags in their bags, cars, and other possessions without their knowledge which has many worried that criminals are using them to track valuable targets.

Another challenge that AirTags faced during their initial release was that only Apple devices could detect them, meaning that those using products from other manufacturers (such as Android) would not be able to detect them. However, this was later changed to try and prevent users from exploiting these issues (while AirTags cannot use Android device's stream positioning data, it can at least inform Android users that there is a nearby device that appears to be following them). 

Overall, tracking technologies such as Apple AirTags have proven to be valuable tools in protecting private property, but their ability to track unknowingly to those nearby presents serious issues with security and privacy. 

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.