When Apple released its new quarter-sized AirTag tracking devices last year for the bargain price of $29, everyone who’s ever misplaced their phone, wallet or car keys recognized their value instantly.
So did stalkers and abusers.
A hallmark of domestic violence is control, and what better for abusers to control than to know a survivor’s every move? Dropping the tiny locator into a survivor’s purse or attaching it to her car allows an abuser to track the survivor’s movements, possibly in a nefarious, dangerous way.
“This type of technology is absolutely being misused to perpetrate acts of modern gender-based violence,” says Adam Dodge, a California-based attorney. Dodge founded the nonprofit endtab.org in 2019 out of frustration that “I didn’t feel like I could act when a survivor was being harmed online or via their device.” In his opinion, we should be more than worried about these tiny trackers.
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“This puts a very sophisticated tool in the hands of an unsophisticated person who wants to harm someone else,” says Dodge.
A local Boston news station found at least 20 reports in the last year alone of victims being tracked without their knowledge via an AirTag. In one incident, an abuser slipped an AirTag into his child’s backpack during a custody meeting. A family who visited Disney World in May discovered an AirTag had been tracking their 17-year-old daughter’s movements in the park for four hours before they were alerted.
While Apple has stated publicly that their devices are designed to track belongings, not people, and that they condemn malicious attempts to use AirTags, many argue that the notification system of an unknown AirTag needs improvement. Currently, it can take up to 8, sometimes 24 hours, for a user’s phone to ping them with an alert that an unknown AirTag is traveling with them. And if you don’t hear that ping, the AirTag could continue traveling with you until you glance at your phone.
Apple Vows Sound the Alarm Sooner
Earlier this year, according to TheVerge.com, Apple said it would update its algorithm to more quickly notify users that an unknown AirTag was detected on the person. Apple also said it would “emphasize louder tones” going forward. An update would also allow law enforcement to access AirTag owners’ identifying information in the case of an unlawful tracking.
It’s unclear when exactly the updates will happen, or if they already did. Apple released a firmware update in April, but it appeared to only affect the sound of the ping, not decrease the time it took to alert a user.
Stalking Starts Way Before AirTags
“When you have someone using [an AirTag] for aspects of influence and control, it starts with something much more simple. If you’re wondering if someone is using an AirTag to track you, this is not going to be the first red flag,” says security expert Spencer Coursen, author of The Safety Trap.
A stalker is typically someone that is known to the victim—a former partner or someone with a love-interest in the victim who may have been rebuffed in the past. The goal of stalking is to not only track someone, but to intimidate them by doing so. Stalking is meant to make someone feel unsafe or on guard, making the perpetrator or abuser feel like they’re in charge of the victim’s fate. Stalking often escalates to more dangerous tactics of power and control—showing up where the target is, harassing and often nonstop phone calls or text messages, damage to property and even, in some cases, assault.
Coursen says the roots of stalking can be disguised as concern early on in a relationship. A partner may claim they’re just worried about the other person and need to know where they are at all times to keep them safe. This might progress to sharing locations on each other’s phones. “In time, it grows to ‘Let me do the updates on your phone for you,’” says Coursen, “and the whole time, they’re just saving passwords or installing ‘Find My iPhone.’”
Of course, Apple didn’t invent stalking with a tracking device. All sorts of tiny, magnetic or clip-on trackers have been available for years by other companies, sold under the auspice of keeping track of one’s belongings. Companies use them to track products being transported or company vehicles.
“But you could just replace ‘products’ with ‘your ex-girlfriend’ and there you go,” says Coursen. In other words, this isn’t a new hack for stalkers, and those at risk of being victims should know what to look for. Read, “High-Tech Stalking Tactics” to learn more about how stalkers track victims using technology.
What To Do If You Find an Unknown AirTag
You’ll likely get an alert than an unknown AirTag is “moving with you” if someone has put a device on you without your knowledge. You have an option at that point to have the AirTag play a sound to help you locate it.
If you tap on “Learn About This AirTag,” you can check its serial number to see if it’s been reported lost and, if so, find instructions for getting in contact with the owner. (Be wary of this if you have any suspicions that you might be being stalked. If in doubt, return the AirTag to an Apple store and let them handle it.)
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If the AirTag was not reported lost and you don’t know where it came from, tap on “Disable AirTag” and follow the steps to prevent it from continuing to track your location, which will include removing its battery.
If you can’t find the AirTag, search all of your belongings or wait to see if another notification pops up (there is a chance the AirTag is no longer with you). If the AirTag is away from its owner for more than three days, it will begin regularly emitting a ping, which could make it easier to find.
An AirTag may have wound up with you for an innocuous reason, or it could be a red flag level threat, says Coursen. In the latter case, Coursen’s willing to bet you already know who did it.
“Think about who had access. It’s going to be a pretty limited pool. And it’s likely going to be exactly who you think it is.”
You can report AirTags or other stalking behaviors to the police, but don’t try to engage with a stalker directly. They’re looking for a response, which often only ramps up their efforts to stay in contact with you.
For next steps on staying safe when you’re being stalked, read “What Is Stalking?”
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