Apple AirTags are a potential privacy nightmare

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alex mathos13 May 2021Last Update : 1 year ago
Apple AirTags are a potential privacy nightmare

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Apple’s little little AirTags has a noble mission: to help you “lose your ability to lose things,” as Apple would tell you. They are designed to help you find your keys, backpack, bike and pretty much everything you attach them to.

But after using them for a while, I also found that their incredible strength in the form of a network of a billion iPhones across the globe that helps you find an AirTag can also easily make them privacy nightmare.

See, AirTags are small and can easily go unnoticed, even in a backpack, which is great if you just want to track your backpack. But if you have bad intentions of persecuting another person, the small size of AirTags can become a nightmare about the privacy of your victim.

Protection for iPhone users only

Imagine that someone wanted to find out exactly where you are going at all times and exactly where you live. That someone has AirTags at hand and they know only one thing: the person they want to pursue does NOT use an iPhone. This is important because Apple has baked a little extra protection against unwanted tracking for Apple users, but not for Android users. See, if you’re an iPhone user, you’ll be notified if a stranger’s AirTag starts moving with you during a certain period (it took 5 hours and 30 minutes of an AirTag traveling with you until a message appeared on the tracked person’s iPhone in our test). However, if you are an Android user, you will not get it anyone notification on your phone.

In fact, the only way an AirTag will try to signal that it is being abused for pursuit is by tweeting lightly for 15 seconds, but that only happens after 3 days!

Let it sink in! Three full days! A. there is a lot of tracking that can happen in three days, and B. chirping for 15 seconds is something you might not even hear. An AirTag then becomes silent for a few hours and then starts signaling again for another 15 seconds (with the same chirping sound played at 60 decibels, which is not very loud at all).

A perfect tool for a stalker

Back to our theoretical example of our employee having a stalker. This stalker can easily slip an AirTag inside a bag at a coffee shop, or if they know the car of the person they want to pursue, they can easily attach an AirTag to the bottom of that car using strong adhesive. A stalker could even go a step further if they were prepared in their evil plans and could even tape a small sound-absorbing acoustic panel to an AirTag to close it. This way, with an AirTag that is almost muted and out of sight at the bottom of a car, it will take pure luck to ever find it!

You could theoretically track someone for an entire year until the battery on that AirTag dies, and if that person uses an Android phone, they never know!

It’s an absolute nightmare about privacy!
This is a game for us here to try it (keep an eye on that article!), But imagine the frightening consequences of an evil mind using that power.

A stalker risks being sued, but it’s complicated

Finally, there’s one last consideration here: Apple has marked each AirTag with a unique serial number that is physically printed on the AirTag (you can see it once you have removed the battery). In addition, you can also hold an AirTag close to a phone with NFC, and a link will appear that also shows you the AirTag serial number. Then Apple could with a court order reveal who AirTag is registered for and there can be serious consequences after that, but it’s a big if: first you need to have an actual court order and secondly this suggests that you have actually found that AirTag in the first place.
Of course, AirTags are extremely easy to disable if a person being persecuted finds them: simply press the metal cap on the bottom, turn it counterclockwise, and remove the battery, and all their pursuit abilities are gone. But again: you have to find them first to do that.
All of this leaves me very worried: AirTags can and will be abused, and everyone needs better protection.
To avoid lots of problems, Apple and Google MUST work together so that Android users are also warned with a message if someone tries to pursue them and this should happen ASAP. But is it even possible with Apple’s Find My Network as an exclusive thing? We are not so sure, and until then, AirTags can be just as dangerous as they are cool.

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