Apple AirTags are meant to start beeping when they've been separated from their paired iPhones for a certain period of time, which Apple says is between eight and 24 hours.
People being stalked by AirTags slipped into their coats or bags, or attached to their cars, who can hear the beeps will know that tiny tracking devices controlled by someone else are somewhere in their vicinity.
At least, that's how it's supposed to work. But listings have appeared on eBay and Etsy reselling AirTags with disconnected speakers so that they'll no longer beep. And that's got personal-safety advocates worried.
"There is already a secondary market for modified AirTags with the speaker disabled for 'stealth mode,'" tweeted Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a leading opponent of cyberstalking, after being told of the muted AirTag reseller pages yesterday (Feb. 2).
Oh look. There is already a secondary market for modified AirTags with the speaker disabled for “stealth mode.” I hate everything so much right now. https://t.co/Y56CusJ4qPFebruary 2, 2022
In the past few months, dozens of women across the U.S. have reported detecting strange AirTags on their cars or persons after having left public places such as bars, shopping malls or movie theaters. AirTags have been implicated in car thefts in the Toronto and Detroit areas. Local police are advising people on how to detect AirTags that might be being used to stalk them.
What to do if you detect a rogue AirTag
If you can't hear a rogue AirTag beeping — and it's not a very loud beep — then an iPhone or iPad running iOS 14.5 or later will pop up a notification if it detects that your movements are being mirrored by an AirTag that doesn't belong to you. If your iPhone is running iOS 15.2 or later, you can disable that AirTag wirelessly.
(In February 2022, Apple said it would make the chirps more audible, sync them with notifications sent to iPhones and let iPhone owners use Precision Finding to locate rogue AirTags.)
This does leave Android users out in the cold, however. Apple provides a free Android app called Tracker Detect that will scan for rogue AirTags, but you have to start the scan manually, and you're honestly not going to do that every time you leave a public place.
A rival free Android app called AirGuard, developed by academic researchers in Germany, does scan for AirTags continually. But neither Android app lets you remotely disable the AirTag. Instead, you have to find it and then twist off the cover to remove the battery.
There may be good reasons to mute AirTags
To be fair, there are legitimate reasons that you might want to mute an AirTag that you own. While Apple insists that AirTags are solely for the purposes of finding lost items or pets, many AirTag owners are attaching the devices to their own cars, bicycles, scooters and other portable but valuable items that could easily be stolen.
Similar tracking devices have been around for cars for years, but AirTags are easier to use, cheaper to buy and require no subscription fees. There's even a secondary market selling "covert cases" to mount an AirTag in a hidden location on a car or bike.
In such instances, beeping AirTags will only alert thieves to their presence. One Twitter user said sloppy moving companies should also be kept in the dark about AirTags in moving boxes.
"Military families have been leaving these in shipments since SO OFTEN stuff is missing or late. This hides it better," said user @amybutmoreso. "An entity that will steal your stuff, or lie to you about where it is, or store it in an unsecured location is also a company that will remove or destroy any item that will allow you to catch them."
I hate this, but I feel as though this is a lack of imagination for unintended consequences and not ill intent. Example: Military families have been leaving these in shipments since SO OFTEN stuff is missing or late. This hides it better.February 2, 2022
It's for these reasons, the AirTag resellers say, that they're modifying the tracking devices.
"The intent of this modification was to cater to the several requests of buyers ... interested in fitting an AirTag to their bikes, pets and power tools," a reseller on Etsy told PC Magazine. "Much like many products in the world, there will always be a minority of people who will use them for malicious activities. Content with my ability to help people with genuine, positive uses, I listed the product without having considered the negative consequences."
A listing on eBay for muted AirTags said that a modified device "reduces chance of a thief being notified of its hidden location."
The two listing pages sold modified AirTags for $75 and $82, respectively, a steep hike from Apple's retail price of $29. The Etsy retailer later took their page down and told PC Magazine they were "not affiliated with any other listings of silent AirTags," although a screenshot from the Etsy page used the same graphics as the eBay listing.
You don't need to pay those kind of prices for a muted AirTag. There are several videos on YouTube that instruct you on how to mute an AirTag yourself. The procedure appears to be less difficult than replacing the battery on an iPhone — not super easy, but also far from impossible for someone with a couple of small tools, a little glue and a lot of patience.
... but should you mute AirTags?
The question is, should you? While you may be entirely convinced of your own good intentions in muting your own AirTags, other people will have more sinister motives — they might want to track a former partner, a business rival or a random stranger. If you're selling such things online, you can't know ahead of time how your customers plan to use them.
"While I believe there to be many positive uses for this product, there are some negatives, that I'm now aware of, that can't be outweighed by any positive," the poster of the Etsy listing told PC Magazine. "In light of this, I have removed my listing from Etsy."