Apple Finally Comments on AirTag Stalking

Posted on February 10, 2022 by Paul Thurrott in Apple with 59 Comments

Apple’s Tile-like AirTag trackers are useful for finding lost items, but stalkers have been using them to track potential victims too. Now, Apple has finally spoken up about this more nefarious AirTag usage.

“AirTag was designed to help people locate their personal belongings, not to track people or another person’s property, and we condemn in the strongest possible terms any malicious use of our products,” a new Apple statement notes. “Unwanted tracking has long been a societal problem, and we took this concern seriously in the design of AirTag. It’s why the Find My network is built with privacy in mind, uses end-to-end encryption, and why we innovated with the first-ever proactive system to alert you of unwanted tracking.”

Apple has long benefited from one-sided reporting on its products, so it’s been interesting to see the mainstream news pick up on the AirTag stalking stories. For example, we seem to hear about every instance in which an Apple Watch saves someone’s life despite not being a medical device, but never about the many more times someone with an Apple Watch just dies of a massive heart attack with no warning.

Apple doesn’t issue statements like this lightly as it doesn’t like to admit to problems with its products. But don’t worry, Apple fans. This one isn’t Apple’s fault either. As noted above, stalking is a “societal problem,” and Apple simply wishes that “others also provide the sorts of proactive warnings in their products” that Apple does with AirTag.

To its credit, Apple is working with law enforcement on “all AirTag-related requests [it has] received,” unlike, say, all the law enforcement requests it has received to crack open iPhones owned by terrorists. “Based on our knowledge and on discussions with law enforcement, incidents of AirTag misuse are rare,” it claims, as if the bad press invented itself. “However, each instance is one too many.”

More specifically, Apple will make changes to AirTag and Find My to put this nonsense behind them so they can focus on all the good they’re doing for the world. Soon, there will be new privacy warnings during setup, updates to the alerts that users receive to indicate that AirPods have been traveling with them, and updated support documentation. And later this year, Apple will introduce other updates that will help victims find unwanted AirTags more precisely, play sounds with alerts, refine unwanted tracking alert logic, and tune AirTag’s sound.

Now can we kindly get back to reporting on all those lives that Apple Watch is saving? Come on, people.

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Comments (59)

59 responses to “Apple Finally Comments on AirTag Stalking”

  1. Stabitha.Christie

    "For example, we seem to hear about every instance in which an Apple Watch saves someone’s life despite not being a medical device, but never about the many more times someone with an Apple Watch just dies of a massive heart attack with no warning."


    Ohh Paul... The watch doesn't detect heart attacks it detects atrial fibrillation. ECGs aren't used in heart attack prevention. The Apple Watch literally tells you that it can't detect heart attacks when you do an ECG.


    But why let reality get in the way of attacking Apple right?

    • Stabitha.Christie

      Also, it's a Class II medical device.



    • jason_e

      Excellent reply with actual facts. Nice job.

    • Paul Thurrott

      I absolutely love how easily triggered you are. Thanks for the laugh.


      Also


      https://www.cnet.com/tech/mobile/features/fitbit-apple-know-smartwatches-arent-medical-devices-but-do-you/



      Also, according to Apple, "This feature won’t detect all instances of AFib." https://www.apple.com/healthcare/apple-watch/
      • Stabitha.Christie

        Triggered? You mean like resorting to personal attacks?


        Nothing I said was incorrect.


        The Apple Watch is an FDA approved Class II medical device. It's a medical device.


        What you said was there were a number of people dying "of a massive heart attack with no warning." The fact is the Apple Watch doesn't detect heart attacks. Instead of addressing the criticism of what you said you have opted to try to change the subject.


        What is worth a laugh if you are criticizing the press at large while demonstrating no journalistic integrity.






      • pecosbob04

        Paul, are you really calling someone ELSE triggered? This whole post cries out Butt-Hurt.Seriously WTF is wrong with you‽

        • Person

          Paul just hoped nobody caught his bluff but you (and others) did and messed up his credibility. That hurts plenty (for him) and is painful to read when he starts using straw man arguments.


          just admitting you’re wrong takes courage but hurts less in the long run.

      • Greg Green

        You wrote a triggered column and criticize people for calling you out on it?


        you failed to note that iPhones already receive warnings about unknown AirTags nearby, though the time of notification being somewhat problematic.


        there’s little wrong with being a curmudgeon, but being a senseless one is just not helpful for anyone.

  2. Brett Barbier

    The primary way people are discovering that they are being tracked with an AirTag is because of Apple's notification system, if I'm not mistaken. The AirTag competitors don't have a similar notification system. As mentioned not long ago, a cheap pre-paid android phone with a USB battery pack taped to it can easily be used to track someone's vehicle - albeit a larger alternative to the AirTags.

    • wright_is

      There are also a lot of specialist tracking devices that work in the same way, but last weeks between charges and have their own SIM for sending messages/data back to base.


      These are designed not to be found. The Airtags are designed to be found, they warn other iPhone users and Android users with Apple's Airtag warning app, and they start to beep, when they are separated from the owner's iPhone for long periods of time.

  3. wright_is

    While I agree with some of what you have written, this is a societal problem, there are dozens of tracking devices out there that do covert tracking a lot better than the Apple tags.


    I don't have any tags, but, and forgive me if I am wrong, don't they start to beep if they are out of range of their iPhone and in range of other devices? Also, doesn't the iPhone warn you, if there are strange tags in the vicinity for extended periods of time? There is also an Android app for Android owners.


    Many of the other devices are designed not to give themselves away, they are specifically designed to be used to covertly track someone. They are also anonymous. If the Airtag is found, it can be traced back to the owner, because it is registered, many of the other devices aren't registered at all.


    I disagree with many things Apple does, but on this one, I have to say that it is a societal problem and Apple have done a fair bit to make it ineffective at tracking other people.

    • nine54

      Of course it's a societal problem like all illicit, immoral, and undesirable uses of technology. That said, it's hard to see how Apple "took this concern seriously" during the design.


      What if the answer is that the risk outweighs the reward and it's better to not release a product like this until the risk can be sufficiently mitigated? Not saying that this is the right answer, but sometimes it might be. Yes, other products can be used for this purpose, but hard to argue that iPhone popularity and pervasiveness doesn't affect the risk.

    • Greg Green

      Both questions in the first paragraph are correct. The complaints are that the out of range beep is faint, and that the time delay for the notification of an unknown tracker nearby can take hours.

      • wright_is

        It is supposed to take hours to trigger.


        If you have a tags on stuff at home, like luggage you only take out a few times a year, or spare sets of keys etc. you don't want them beeping all-day-long, when you leave the house and driving the rest of the family crazy!

  4. spiderman2

    "it's a feature!"


    "you're using it wrong!"

    • hrlngrv

      You'd think by now the people at Apple, no doubt convinced of the relative magnitudes of their intelligence compared to people who don't work for Apple, would figure that their customers aren't so bright, so maybe Apple should design stuff with that in mind.

  5. RobertJasiek

    Apple PR propaganda everywhere.


    However, Apple operates AirTags as preemptive mass surveillance tools presuming users' guilt. Illegal under German law.


    E.g, suppose a crook steals an AirTag, smuggles drugs together with the AirTag, returns the AirTag to its owner, Apple presumes its owner's guilt and informs the police.

    • wright_is

      No, Apple operates AirTags as a method of finding misplaced items, it is not mass surveillance and it is not illegal under German law. If they were illegal under German law, you could not buy them in Germany, but they are freely available from multiple retailers.


      They are also pretty poor as a person tracker. They don't use GPS and they don't update in real-time. They require an iPhone (or other Apple device with U1 chip) to be in the vicinity, to pick up their signal and pass that on to the owner's account. Even then, the updating isn't in real-time.


      Using them to track people without their permission is illegal in Germany, using them for their intended purpose isn't.


      In your example, the authorities would need to know which AirTag was used in the crime and get a court order to get the appropriate data from Apple - there is a question, whether they have the information or whether it is encrypted in the user's account; I don't know the answer to that one off the top of my head.


      Apple don't track the tags themselves (i.e. they don't have people sitting there monitoring the locations of tags), there are too many for that to be practical anyway, let alone for Apple to know which ones are currently being used for nefarious purposes.


      Was AirTags gut können, ist, Ihnen eine Vorstellung davon zu geben, wo ein Artikel das letzte Mal war, als jemand mit einem iPhone daran vorbeiging. Wenn Sie wissen möchten, wo sich Ihr Kind oder Ehepartner gerade befindet, werden Sie von AirTags enttäuscht sein.

      From: https://allinfo.space/2021/05/12/das-was-sie-mit-apple-airtags-nicht-verfolgen-sollten/


      There are plenty of other products on the market (and on the market for many years) that track people much more accurately and are also untraceable and don't inform those being tracked that they are currently being tracked (AirTags beep if they have been away from the owner for a period of time and they inform nearby iPhones that they are in the vicinity - and Android users can download an Apple app to search for nearby AirTags.


      Whilst they can be misused for tracking people, they are one of the worst ways of doing it, compared to other products already on the market. You'd have to be pretty stupid to actually use an AirTag to track someone, as, once the tag has been found, it can be tracked back to its registered user.

      • wright_is

        there is a question, whether they have the information or whether it is encrypted in the user's account; I don't know the answer to that one off the top of my head.


        So, I did some more research. Apple can access the owner data and, given a court order and a tag ID, they will tell the police who owns the tag. From what I've seen, it is mainly used to find the owners of lost items or to track down idiots who tried to use it for stalking purposes and the AirTag made itself known to the person being tracked, who reported it to the police.

  6. andreluis77x

    "Apple is working with law enforcement on “all AirTag-related requests [it has] received,” unlike, say, all the law enforcement requests it has received to crack open iPhones owned by terrorists."


    Whose job is it to define who is a terrorist and who is not? Once they have the "power" to crack open an "iPhone owned by terrorists", they'll have the power to crack open ANY iPhone.

  7. Chris_Kez

    Folks, save your ire. This post is Paul just shaking his head and chuckling about Apple's comeuppance. He is not trying to unpack the whole story here, though there is an interesting discussion to be had as you can tell from several of the thoughtful comments.

    • wright_is

      The problem I have is, why is Apple having its comeuppance, when it is the only device in the item tracking space that actually alerts everybody around it to its presence?


      There are hundreds of products out there that are genuinely creepy, because they are truly covert, they are designed to be hidden away and not give themselves away, so that the owner of the device can track someone.


      If these devices had a comeuppance, I could understand the outrage. And, no, I'm not really a fan of the AirTag (or other item tracking technologies), I rarely misplace items, so I've never felt the need to invest in these sorts of things.


      But it seems to be that people are upset because the AirTags actually alert people who someone thought they could track. If the person who was doing the tracking wasn't a thick as 2 short planks, they would have bought a real personal tracking device, that is anonymous, for a fraction of the price and doesn't give itself away.


      These covert products are the ones we should actually be up in arms about...

  8. Andi

    By default all iphones opt the user into "Find My" network. Make the Find My service opt in and during initial setup ask everyone "do you want to be tracked by Apple for the purpose of finding your idevices?".

    Hell, at the next ios update sign out every idevice user from the Find My network and prompt them with the question. I guarantee the network will drop to 20% of all iphone users worldwide.

  9. ebraiter

    Lame/useless comment by Apple. It doesn't stop some creep from placing a tag on you when you aren't looking or on something you own. Do you think you'll open your iGadget every 20 minutes to see if there is an AirTag near you?

  10. scovious

    Apple shouldn't make products whose purpose is to explicitly track and spy and be as small and unnoticeable as possible. Maybe it's just a fundamentally bad idea! Like Amazon building always listening internet connected mics into a "kids" speaker. No good can come from it compared to the level of horrific uses they enable.

    • Greg Green

      Apple didn’t. Paul just did bad reporting that misinformed you.

    • wright_is

      Apple didn't. They made a product that doesn't track or spy, it is explicitly designed to be a lousy tracker. It tells all iPhones in the area that it is there, Android owners can download an app to locate tags in their vicinity as well, and if it is away from the owner for a prolonged period, it starts to beep.


      It doesn't have any inbuilt tracking technology, it uses a UWB beacon, which iPhones automatically recognise and pass back to the owners account, via Apple's cloud. If there are no iPhones in the vicinity, then the is no tracking. It also doesn't update constantly, so accurate tracking of a moving target is difficult, especially if it is in an area with low iPhone density.


      There are already hundreds of products in the people tracking and privacy invasion space. The Apple AirTag is not in that space at all, as the stories around the AirTags show, if someone was stupid enough to plant one on somebody/in a car, they have been found out, because the AirTag warns them that it is there! It is also a registered device, so if someone does find one and reports it to the police, they can get the owner's information from Apple (with a warrant).


      So, you'd have to be a very thick criminal to even consider a registered AirTag, designed to tell the victim it is there, compared to cheaper GPS enabled trackers that are totally anonymous.

  11. Brett Barbier

    I would love to be able to hide an AirTag in my own vehicle, backpack, suitcase, etc. whenever I want to, and to not have it emit any beeps or alerts if it's away from my phone for more than a few hours, because I'd like to use it during certain trips to be able to track down whatever I have placed the AirTag inside of if it's lost or stolen, without tipping off "the bad guys". If I'm on a trip and something of mine with an AirTag inside is stolen, it would be great to know where it is, so that I can help the local police recover it.


    Because of these stalking concerns, thieves can, and likely already are, quickly checking for AirTags, making them less useful for the vast majority of us who don't want to use them for stalking.

  12. hrlngrv

    Haven't Lojacks for tracking vehicles been hacked?


    Perhaps we've arrived at a technological solution (tracking devices) which cause more problems than they solve. In which case, perhaps there's less overall risk from not using any trackers at all.


    That is, unless tracking devices could emit what would appear to be static/white noise which only specific receivers could decrypt. However, that'd mean checking ALL white noise in case it were such signals.


    I figure the main lesson here is that the BAD GUYS will always be 1 or more steps ahead of whatever tech was new 1 year ago and even further ahead of older tech. Meaning for this tech to be worthwhile, it may need FREQUENT upgrading/redesigns and be CHEAP since it'd have short useful lifetimes. Meaning the economics may not work.

    • wright_is

      There are many much more advanced tracking systems out there. Those that are specifically designed for tracking, as opposed to finding lost property, for instance, do proper GPS tracking and use cellular communications to post their position back to the owner.


      The devices emit the digital equivalent of white noise, which is how iPhones and can locate them - they send out a local UWB pulse that iPhones can pick up, if it is the owner's iPhone it tells the owner where the tag is, if it is a stranger iPhone, it just informs the owner that a tag is in the area, but doesn't say where - Apple are changing this, to be able to locate stranger tags in the area.


      If the tag hasn't seen its owner for a couple of days, it beeps. This being the whole purpose of the tags, to enable people to find the lost items and return them to the rightful owner. The location technology in AirTags is very basic, but the privacy protection is sophisticated.


      Real trackers are much more sophisticated, at a technological level, but don't have any privacy protection features, because that is their whole reason for existing, to invade other people's privacy.

  13. mclark2112

    It may seem like a far fetched thing, but the Apple Watch absolutely saved my life. My Dr was amazed that I could tell from the data that not only something was wrong, but that I should immediately see a Cardiologist. I was 100% healthy, as far as I knew, and hadn’t even been to a Dr in a decade. I am now the proud owner of my second Pacemaker, and my 3rd Apple Watch. All at age 51.


    That being said, the tracker thing is a bit scary. Is Tile immune to this because it is really a short range tracker, and doesn’t use a network of all Apple devices to locate it? Or is Tile somehow just as scary?

    • wright_is

      Tile is immune, because they aren't Apple.


      Their devices don't warn the person being tracked, so it is harder for them to find out they are being tracked.


      The "problem" with the Apple Airtags is that Apple made them and Apple put in extra privacy features that warn people when there are "unattended" tags around them (they start to beep and the iPhone or an Android app will warn users of tags near them).

      • angusmatheson

        I totally agree. This is clearly a problem, but it has been a problem for a long time. People have been able to use GPS tracing for years with specific devices designed for tracing people and commercial devices like tile. If anything, Apple is safer as iPhones automatically tell you that you are being tracked and has released an android app. Tile doesn’t do this? My wife and a friend drove to a nearby town together, and the friend got noticed she was traveling with an AirTag. Back when we used tile rust never happened. And the best part is that people are getting informed about the terrifying reality of GPS tracking. It is very easy to know exactly where you are. Does apple need to make these safer absolutely, did tile do anything to make their devices safer during years of use? No. The greater scrutiny coming to GPS trackers since apple joined the market is a really good thing. Hopefully all GPS tracking systems in the future will having warnings like AirTags do now. And hopefully there will be a more elegant system with AirTag warnings on android.

    • jason_e

      Yes you can use Tile the same way but Tile is a tiny company compared to Apple. You can also buy very cheap GPS trackers online to do the same exact thing but its more fun for Apple haters to hate on Apple for something that is not even Apples fault. Unlike others at least Apple is trying to build in protections against this but whatever.

    • christianwilson

      Tile announced support of Amazon Sidewalk so, assuming that functionality is live now, even Tiles can be tracked from a long distance.


      This is one of those situations where the product works as it should but there are clear, nefarious uses. Tracking people with tools like this has been possible for a long time but AirTags are a much more visible product so this problem is coming to light.


      The question in my mind is how you even stop this kind of thing from happening short of not offering trackers at all. I don't think you do, though it looks like Apple is taking steps to help find AirTags easier, at least.

    • SvenJ

      To add to other comments, the AirTag is really a short range tracker just like the others. It's advantage is that every iPhone comes out of the box with the ability to see it and participate in the location network. In the US that comes to about every other person. Doesn't take long for someone with an iPhone to pass by a lost AirTag. For something like Tile, it requires a user to have the Tile app installed, to participate in location. That limits the number of confederates to mostly others who also have Tile. That brings up a point. Apple has released an AirTag app for Android, for the sole purpose of letting Android users discover a following AirTag. Some argue that's a horrible implementation because a user has to download and check it. In reality though, you would have to do the same with any/every other tracker type out there, Tile, Chipolo, Trakr, etc. At this point those wouldn't alert you even if you did install them. So Apple is at the very least, no worse than anyone else, and is at least acknowledging and making the effort.

      • jgraebner

        I think the bulk of the problem is that we keep doing proprietary implementations of things that clearly should be standards. If there was an open standard for this type of tracking device with Apple and Google both on-board, any phone could quickly alert you to unexpected devices without Android users having to download an application that most probably don't even know exists. It also would make these devices more effective since any phone could ping and report them, regardless of who makes the phone or the tracker.

  14. dftf

    "Apple has long benefited from one-sided reporting on its products, so it’s been interesting to see the mainstream news pick up on the AirTag stalking stories."


    That is likely a US-bias, given the US tends to be patriotic and give favourable coverage to its own companies -- here in the UK, I can assure you it's been mentioned in the news over-here.


    "Apple [...] doesn’t like to admit to problems with its products"


    The product is working as intended though: you put it on, or in, something and can then track where the tracker is via GPS. If people misuse that, they misuse it.


    [TRIGGER WARNING] It's like saying Apple would be to blame if someone was to use an iPhone to record child-molestation. Sure, without that iPhone you could argue the video would never have been recorded, but that's not what the majority of users use the camera for. Or equally, for a less-triggering example, what about strangling someone with the power-cable for their mac computer? Or using an Apple device to hack-into a company, or take part in a DDoS attack?


    Everything can be misused.


    I mean, in this specific example, you could also buy a cheap Android phone, sign-into it with a Google account you create and so know the credentials for, put that phone into a hidden place in, say, someone's car, and then use the "Find My Phone" feature to do tracking that way. Sure, a phone is a lot-bigger than an AirTag and so more-likely to be found, but it will still let you track the current location online.


    • Paul Thurrott

      FWIW I've never visited a country that isn't patriotic.

      • dftf

        Every country has some level of patriotism, sure, but some more-than others.


        And my point about US-bias still stands, as even you are sometimes guilty of this. I mean, we know that a worldwide silicon shortage is causing supply-issues in many categories, from cars, to medical-devices, to games-consoles.


        And for games-consoles, you covered the main-two recently with different slants:


        For Xbox, as US-owned company:

        "Niko Partners reported this week that Microsoft has now sold over 12 million Xbox Series X and S consoles despite global supply chain issues."


        For Sony, a non-US owned company:

        "PlayStation 5 Sales are Already Slowing ... As part of its latest quarterly earnings report, Sony revealed that it sold 3.9 million PlayStation 5 consoles, for a total of 17.3 million.


        So for Xbox the message is "if not for this silicon shortage, it could have sold more", but for Sony "demand in the PS5 is clearly decreasing" is how it comes-over, which isn't true. Both are being hit by the same issue: supply cannot keep-up with demand. Though, at 17.3 million to 12, Sony has actually still sold around 5.3 million more consoles, while facing the same silicon-shortage issue.

      • spacein_vader

        Agreed, but some more than others. Only a select few have their school kids pledge allegiance to their nations flag, or glorify anyone who chose to be a member of the armed forces. To the rest of us it seems odd.

    • nbplopes

      It may work as intended but that is not the litmus of a good solution much less of good design.


      Yes, Apple cannot be blamed for misuse of their products … but products may be considered insecure for people to use.


      The careful choice of your wording gives the impression that you may have something burning that should not.


      Then again it might be just poor choice of words.



  15. truerock2

    Oh good!

    Now you can steal something with an AirTag and not worry about getting caught.

    All crooks must be so happy.

    • SvenJ

      Clearly that is one of the drawbacks with Apple's anti-tracking mitigation. It does however take some time to notify someone that a foreign tracker is travelling with them. The shorter you make that time, the more likely a thief is likely to find it and disable it. The longer you make it, the more problematic it makes it for a stalkee. They could have just done nothing, like all the other tracker makers.

    • jgraebner

      Precisely because of the stalking concern, devices like Air-tags, Tile, etc. really only make sense for helping to locate lost items, not for anti-theft purposes. For anti-theft, you need something like LoJack devices in cars, which can only be tracked by law enforcement.

      • wright_is

        Apple actually explicitly warns that it is purely for lost items and not for tracking down stolen items, that is a job for law enforcement.

        • Brett Barbier

          True... but sometimes a lost item becomes a stolen item. If I forget a bag somewhere that is not obviously visible/out in the open, having an AirTag inside that starts beeping could attract someone who is ethical challenged, so to speak, before I had a chance to retrieve the bag.

  16. adamstaiwan

    Not sure I understand Apple's response. Is the only thing they will do is to make sure a person's tag is secure? What about the stalker who puts his tag in someone's stuff. Or are they saying that they simply want to tell stalkers that it is a bad thing to do and that they should stop.

    I wish they would be consistent, if they agree that a certain weapon that starts with g and ends in n with a u in the middle should be banned because of the harm done then so should tags.

    • Greg Green

      If you’re basing your question on Paul’s shoddy misinformation you're operating at a severe disadvantage. Apple has at least two safety features already built in that were available from initial sale.

    • wright_is

      It starts to beep if it is away from the owner's iPhone for a prolonged period, and I believe Apple reduced that time as well, so it starts beeping earlier.


      Other iPhone owners are warned when a strange Tag is near them for prolonged periods of time, and Android users can use Apple's app to warn them if there are tags in the area. I would say they have done as much as they can, in the circumstances.


      Much more than other lost article tracking devices, let alone devices (that have been around for years) that are deliberately designed to actually track people without them knowing.


      Someone who uses an Airtag to track someone is either lazy or dumb and should quickly be uncovered. If they use a proper tracking device, they can remain undetected for long periods of time.

      • nbplopes

        I have 5 AirTags. The thing that bugs me the most is that me and my wife sometimes share keys, say car keys. We have buzzed all the time for it.


        Apple should allow to define shareable trackers on user accounts.


        Furthermore I believe that someone that is buzzed by non authorized AirTags should be given the option to fully disable the tracking immediately as well as notify the owner that it has been found.

        • Brett Barbier

          Yes, fully agree on that - why Apple opted to treat AirTags as a new category of object, named "Items" within the "Find My" app, without the ability to share the locations of the "items" with others, like how the "devices" are shared, is a mystery to me. If they have a good reason why people would NOT want their family members to see the location of "items", they could have the default be "don't share", but at least give us the option to share them.

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