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It's time to pause sales of Apple AirTags — here's why

Close-up view of two Apple AirTags with the Apple logos partly visible.
(Image credit: Ink Drop/Shutterstock)

If you’ve been following the news, Apple’s AirTags have continually been popping up in headlines for all the wrong reasons. These are just some of them:

But it’s this most recent headline from a Vice special report that has me wondering whether this product should even exist — at least in its current form: 

“Police Records Show Women Are Being Stalked With Apple AirTags Across the Country” (opens in new tab)

This in-depth special report shows that AirTags are being used to stalk and harass women. The site obtained 150 police records over an eight-month period from eight police departments.

According to Vice, “in 50 cases women called the police because they started getting notifications that their whereabouts were being tracked by an AirTag they didn’t own. Of those, 25 could identify a man in their lives—ex-partners, husbands, bosses—who they strongly suspected planted the AirTags on their cars in order to follow and harass them.”

The ability for me to find my lost keys doesn't outweigh the safety of women being stalked.

Unsurprisingly, most of these cases involved exes. One woman reported that her ex had slashed her tiles and left an AirTag in the car. And another woman said she found AirTags attached to her car multiple times, and her ex (who has a history of assault) showed up to her locations at the same time the victim did. 

Apple has made a number of changes to try to make the AirTags safer and to thwart would-be stalkers. These include proactive alerts if an unknown AirTag is traveling with you, launching an Android app that notifies users of AirTags and shortening the time window of when an AirTag chimes when separated from its owner from three days to between 8 and 24 hours. 

But AirTags are still being used to stalk victims, which has raised questions around whether Apple has reacted quickly enough to the dangers these devices pose when in the wrong hands.

"Apple had considered mitigations for stalking but they simply hadn’t done enough," Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (opens in new tab), told me. "They had not consulted people who have worked directly with survivors and they had difficulty imagining the targeting of survivors who exist outside of the Apple ecosystem." 

In February, Apple announced other advancements coming to the AirTag and Find My Network. One is a privacy warning during setup that's part of iOS 15.4 that stalkers will just ignore.

But other changes coming "later this year" should help. Precision finding will help iPhone 11, iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 users to see the distance and direction to an unknown AirTag, thereby making them easier to find. Apple will also display an alert on your phone when an unknown AirTag near you makes a sound, and is also working on making the sound itself louder.

Having to download an app and run a scan every single time is not parity with the kind of detection that you get in iOS. If you live outside of Apple’s walled garden, you do not receive the same protections from Apple’s products.

Eva Galperin, EFF

But all of these changes don’t help the women who are being stalked right now. And Android users are particularly vulnerable, because they would have to know to download the Apple Tracker Detect app to protect themselves and perform a manual scan. 

"Having to download an app and run a scan every single time is not parity with the kind of detection that you get in iOS," said Galperin. "If you live outside of Apple’s walled garden, you do not receive the same protections from Apple’s products."

Avi Greengart, founder and lead analyst at Techsponential, says that the "vast majority" of people are using AirTags productively to keep tracker of their bags, valuables, and even children who may wonder off. But he agrees that AirTags have an Android problem.

"Apple has adjusted AirTag functionality within the Apple ecosystem," Greengart shared over email. "Where change needs to occur is on Android to ensure that they get zero-setup alerts."

Google is reportedly looking to build a Bluetooth tracker into the Android OS itself, according to 9to5Google (opens in new tab), but that's not official and there’s no timetable for a release.

I would strongly argue that AirTags should be pulled from the market until Apple is able to implement all of the changes it has promised — and until there is a device detection scanner built directly into the Android operating system. 

In its February press release (opens in new tab), Apple touted the main benefits of AirTags when used properly, such as finding a lost wallet or tracking down critical medicine. But I don't think any of these positive uses outweigh the safety of women who are being stalked. 

As Albert Fox Cahn, executive director at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told Vice, “the only solution is to stop selling and supporting AirTags. This product is far too dangerous to stay on the market.” 

What the EFF's Galperin is asking for is for every maker of a physical tracker to agree on a standard that allows both iOS and Android to recognize them and always look for them in the background. We're just not there yet.

It’s time for Apple to stop reacting and to press the reset button on AirTags before someone gets killed. In the meantime, see our guide on how to tell if an AirTag is stalking you — and what you can do about it

Edit (April 29): Since the publishing of this article, Apple has released new firmware for the AirTag that increases the volume of its alert tone when detected by an unpaired iPhone.

Read next: Apple AirTags are continuing to be used maliciously, and Apple needs to do more about it

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.

  • varase
    Wow ... you've really made it hard to comment on an article.

    AirTags are just one product in the tracker market, and they are no more dangerous than any other tracker - less so, because Apple actually cares about the potential for involuntary tracking.

    The only reason those people know they were being tracked is because Apple put in tracker detection - unlike others like Tile (who was actually selling location data).

    Gotta say: I think the benefits for tracking lost items is more valuable for me than the dangers - if you're in a target class you can install software that detects potential threats (if you're not on iOS).
    Reply
  • Mikezthoughts
    Creepy stalkers are not dedicated to any one particular technology ecosystem they will use whatever they can!
    This is only labeled as an "air tag" issue because Apple has been transparent about these tags.
    It would be foolish to think that this already hasn't been going on with the tile and the Samsung tag.
    Again the key difference being that Apple notifies you if you have an air tag on you whereas tile and Samsung do not.
    Reply
  • Magialuna
    Why do I think the people who disagree with the danger of being stalked using this technology are probably men? Similar to how anytime the topic of the security steps a person takes simply to walk to their car, or walk alone comes up... Women have a very different take on all the precautions you need to take just to feel almost safe than men do.
    Reply
  • Mark Spoonauer
    varase said:
    Wow ... you've really made it hard to comment on an article.

    AirTags are just one product in the tracker market, and they are no more dangerous than any other tracker - less so, because Apple actually cares about the potential for involuntary tracking.

    The only reason those people know they were being tracked is because Apple put in tracker detection - unlike others like Tile.

    Gotta say: I think the benefits for tracking lost items is more valuable for me than the dangers - if you're in a target class you can install software that detects potential threats (if you're not on iOS).

    You make a good point. Other trackers can be used for the same thing. However, Apple has an opportunity to lead on this issue. And I am suggesting that they pause sales until more safeguards can be put into place. And you're a potential victim, having to install an app on Android is a step that most won't know that they have to take. Plus, you have to scan manually. It really needs to happen at the OS level for Android and I think Apple and other tracker makers should work to make this happen.
    Reply
  • Keriphilips
    I can't be sure, but my guess why you think that is you - like many - have be taught the contemptuous practice of illegitimizing people's opinions based on things like their gender, race, and orientation rather than confront their arguments on their own merits.

    I'm a woman, and no, my various lives experiences does not make me particularly fearful of this tech. While Mark makes a decent point that much could be done on an OS level to make them safer, I simply would never want to see innovation and helpful tech in 99.9% of cases be shuttered because of bad people doing bad things.

    It'd be akin to thinking we should shut down comment sections to protect against bullying, social media to protect against stalking, and mass public transportation to cut down on physical assaults. Like obviously doing that would help, but the trade off ultimately isn't worth it, and there's countless other steps that could be taken to protect women and allow innocent people to have nice things.
    Reply
  • realitykicks
    Nothing Apple, nor Google, nor the media has proposed to fix this problem thus far actually fixes the problem, which is the massive, surveillance dragnet Apple deployed on behalf of PRISM and NSA by implementing BLE tracking defaults across all its devices. Indeed, Airtags are a commercial and social psyop, designed to encourage the use of non user modifiable BLE trackers to locate other BLE trackers. Going all the way back to Facebook's inception, the pattern technology giants and the military industrial complex developed was designed to normalize dragnet surveillance by allowing consumers to co-opt it by spying on friends and family, albeit what those individuals voluntarily posted about themselves. This is the next logical step: if you don't have a tracking device configured in a way to let Big Brother secretly get telemetry on your location 24 hours a day, you won't know when your psycho ex boyfriend or neighborhood car thief is stalking you. That's psyops 101.

    Everything written on this topic by the media so far is endemic of not seeing the forest for the trees, tantamount to Vichy journalism. If you want to fix the problem, order a radio bug sweeper on Amazon or similar, turn OFF Find My, turn OFF Bluetooth on your device, and turn OFF any radio on your device you aren't using, and if necessary, drop the damn thing in a faraday bag.

    But I digress because we've crossed the Rubicon with Apple. They cannot be trusted. Gone are the days when Steve Jobs would use the legal department to litigate against the government for wanting exactly what it's getting now. Buy a droid and run it with Lineage or Graphene. Better yet, don't bother with any software that isn't open source. The first rule of backdooring software is the clipwrap agreement.
    Reply
  • realitykicks
    Keriphilips said:
    I can't be sure, but my guess why you think that is you - like many - have be taught the contemptuous practice of illegitimizing people's opinions based on things like their gender, race, and orientation rather than confront their arguments on their own merits.

    I'm a woman, and no, my various lives experiences does not make me particularly fearful of this tech. While Mark makes a decent point that much could be done on an OS level to make them safer, I simply would never want to see innovation and helpful tech in 99.9% of cases be shuttered because of bad people doing bad things.

    It'd be akin to thinking we should shut down comment sections to protect against bullying, social media to protect against stalking, and mass public transportation to cut down on physical assaults. Like obviously doing that would help, but the trade off ultimately isn't worth it, and there's countless other steps that could be taken to protect women and allow innocent people to have nice things.

    1. The 4th Amendment is not a gender, race, or orientation issue.

    2. The "helpful tech" you're referring to is CO-TRAVELER on steroids. Cell phone triangulation sucked so they consumerized GPS. GPS didn't work well indoors so they consumerized Bluetooth Low Energy. The tech isn't designed to help you run a national security apparatus that relies on AI to process discrete real-time locations of millions to within 15 feet, indoors or outdoors, by tethering IMSI/IMEI to PII and biometrics.

    3. We should shut down comments sections if their only real purpose is to dox users and monitor dissidents (WaPo is a great example). Most of them are dead anyway, which is why most of the issues 'people' talk about there are sideshows with tangential connections to the central thesis. Of course, one would have to possess an ego and not an algorithm to see the trap here, or minimum level of intelligence to see past the noise.
    Reply
  • pcunix
    This is very poor quality for Tom's Guide. The author is the Editor in Chief? Wow. I don't think I'll be subscribing to any more from this site.
    Reply
  • varase
    Mark Spoonauer said:
    You make a good point. Other trackers can be used for the same thing. However, Apple has an opportunity to lead on this issue. And I am suggesting that they pause sales until more safeguards can be put into place. And you're a potential victim, having to install an app on Android is a step that most won't know that they have to take. Plus, you have to scan manually. It really needs to happen at the OS level for Android and I think Apple and other tracker makers should work to make this happen.
    The only reason this wasn't an issue with other trackers, is because no one who was tracked knew they were being tracked - well, that and the fact that the others just don't work as advertised.

    I mean, for a Tile to be remotely seen the tracker would have to run across someone running the Tile app - which has a slightly better chance than running into a Yeti.

    What other safeguards could be put in place?

    It's a little $30 coin with very little electronics in it.

    Apple could tell Google how to put detection into Android, but what if you don't have a smartphone?
    Reply