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Apple’s AirTags keep being tagged in domestic abuse cases

Apple’s AirTags are in the news once more due to their misuse by perpetrators of domestic abuse. Despite, or perhaps because of, Apple’s updates to iOS, there have been increasing reports of ArTags being used for stalking. A report from Motherboard this week, citing police records over a period of 8 months since the AirTag launched, found over a hundred police reports which included AirTags. A third of those, about 50, included women who suspected they were being stalked by a man in their life.

To recap, Apple’s AirTags are small unobtrusive little discs that are meant to be attached to items allowing you to find them if misplaced. Apple has categorically ruled out tracking people without consent and retrieving stolen items as uses for AirTags, yet these are common (and obvious) use cases for AirTags.

AirTags showing up in domestic abuse cases is nothing that couldn’t have been predicted. Certainly, Apple is not the first company to create Bluetooth trackers. It’s not going to be the last, but as we pointed out, Apple has a skill at making technology more accessible to the masses. The company did so with mobile phones, changed the ultrabook market, and made tablets a thing.

“Stalking and stalkerware existed before AirTags, but Apple made it cheaper and easier than ever for abusers and attackers to track their targets,” Albert Fox Cahn, executive director at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told Motherboard. “Apple’s global device network gives AirTags unique power to stalk around the world. And Apple’s massive marketing campaign has helped highlight this type of technology to stalkers and abusers who’d never otherwise know about it.”

Apple AirTag close up.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

With AirTags, there are emerging two schools of thought. One believes that AirTags as a product simply should not exist. Apple has been rolling out mitigatory tools here and there, but those merely mitigate, rather than address the problem at its core. Namely: A product made to be good at tracking is going to be good at tracking.

“This is too little too late,” Cahn told Motherboard. “These gimmicks do little to prevent AirTags from being misused, and they often only notify targets once the damage is done and their location has been tracked. There’s no technical fix that can prevent AirTags from being abused. As long as Apple continues to sell a cheap, easily-hidden tracking device, stalkers will continue to use it. The only solution is to stop selling and supporting AirTags. This product is far too dangerous to stay on the market.”

“I don’t know that there’s an acceptable level of risk for technology like this,” said Mary Beth Becker, domestic violence community educator at Women’s Advocates told the Verge. “We’re talking about people’s actual lives.”

Another point of view is a push for tech companies that offer these trackers to either voluntarily limit themselves or for platform makers to make these trackers easily detectable. Even if we were to limit troubling trackers to these with cutesy names from Tile and Samsung, the tools that Apple offers to help users protect themselves simply do not exist on those products or aren’t nearly as robust at this time. Perhaps Google and Apple could work together so that iPhones could automatically detect Tile trackers and Samsung Galaxy Tags, while Pixels and Galaxies pick up AirTags. It’s one solution. There are signs that this is in the works. Google is already working on a way to detect AirTags and Tile Trackers on Android, though the company has yet to publicly announce it.

“The thing that I am most looking forward to is seeing the makers of physical trackers agree on a standard that can then be implemented in operating systems, so that people have detection of trackers working in the background all the time, automatically, no matter what kind of phone that they have,” Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said.

At the same time, it is worth stressing that the genie has been out of the bottle for years. You are able to purchase a genuine tracker from Amazon that is billed as a tracker, you are able to buy an iPhone and drop it into someone’s backpack and use “Find My iPhone” to stalk them. You’re able to do so with an Apple Watch. The issue lies not with capability but with making this more attractive and more convenient. At the same time, perhaps it is good that Apple did bring this issue into the limelight. At least, solutions are being put into place. There’s an argument to be made that it would have been preferable, however, if these mitigations were put in place beforehand.

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Michael Allison
A UK-based tech journalist for Digital Trends, helping keep track and make sense of the fast-paced world of tech with a…
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Apple and Google are partnering to develop a new standard for Bluetooth tracking devices that seeks to stop malicious stalking and other abusive use of gadgets like the Apple AirTag. Essentially, this would be a universal, OS-level tracker detection and alert system that will work uniformly across Android and iOS. The two companies are inviting stakeholders to review the proposal and submit their feedback within the next three months.

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