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Google’s AirTag copycat could be incredible — and that scares me

Coming on the heels of Apple’s AirTag, Google is now expected to be preparing its own personal tracker just in time for Google I/O 2023. These new trackers, code-named Grogu after the popular Baby Yoda character from The Mandalorian, are aimed at leveraging the power of Android’s Google Play Services-equipped devices (numbering 3 billion) to create a personal tracking network so powerful it rivals Apple’s.

The bad part? Google is creating a personal tracking network so large it rivals Apple’s.

AirTag next to an iPhone.
Digital Trends

Google has been laying the foundation for this feature set in updates to Google Play Services detailed by prolific developer and leaker Kuba Wojciechowski. These updates have brought in support for locator tags to Google’s Fast Pair feature, with the company also reportedly working with multiple device partners to build their own trackers.

Though there is no time frame for this technology to be announced, the aforementioned Google I/O conference in May seems like a good guess. And just like with Apple before it, Google seems set to trip and fall headlong into controversy.

Apple’s AirTag knows controversy all too well

The controversy around AirTags is simple. They are small, cheap, inexpensive trackers that have been used to help people keep track of their luggage and other belongings, as well as for more nefarious purposes like stalking people and setting people up for robberies. Apple has added anti-stalking features to AirTags over the past year, but the incidents keep recurring (with lawsuits and legislation accompanying them) because — well, AirTags are good at their jobs.

Nomad Apple TV Siri Remote Case with an AirTag installed.
Phil Nickinson/Digital Trends

To make these tracker tags infinitely more useful and powerful than competitors’, Google and Apple both leverage large installed bases of billions of people across their platforms. With Apple’s Find My Network and the near ubiquity of Google Play Services in locations where Apple is weak, buying an AirTag and a hypothetical Google tag could leave even more people vulnerable to stalkers and robbers.

Certainly, Google has a better chance of doing things right here. Apple AirTags has been out for several years and the company has made a few mistakes that updates have corrected. Google could simply build in those corrections into its own tags and neuter the problem outright.

A Google tracker can only make things worse

But it’s not as if Google learns from Apple’s mistakes in all cases. Sometimes, the company walks back more thoughtful technological approaches and replaces them with Apple’s implementations. Google could learn from them and come out with superior, more privacy-focused products at the end of the day, but it’s more likely than not that it won’t.

Google has never been known for its privacy practices, and AirTags represent an untapped market for the company’s Android partners. At the end of the day, the tracking milk has already been spilled, the toothpaste can’t be put back in the tub, and other tedious metaphors of that kind.

Google could learn from Apple’s mistakes, but it’s more likely than not that it won’t.

The issue remains that any product which is good at tracking things is inherently one that’s good at tracking people. And Apple, of course, isn’t the only purveyor of such devices, which include inexpensive Bluetooth trackers.

A close-up shot of the Google Pixel 6a, focused on the phone's Google logo.
Joe Maring/Digital Trends

It’s not as if Apple, Google, or Amazon eliminating their products would instantly drop the illicit tracking options to zero. Rather, these companies are willingly making it cheaper, easier, and more convenient to surreptitiously follow people without their consent.

Whether it’s legal or not is one question. Whether the value of finding a lost wallet or keys outweighs potential or actual safety concerns is another entirely.

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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…
3 states propose legislation in response to AirTag stalking
Person holding an Apple AirTag.

Apple's AirTag seems like a great idea in concept, but following numerous reports of the devices at the center of stalking cases, three U.S. states have proposed new legislation for the tags. Pennsylvania proposed a bill in January that seeks to "prohibit Apple AirTags from being used outside of their intended use as a locator for misplaced personal items" and now Ohio and New Jersey have followed the state's lead.

Both Ohio and New Jersey have brought new bills to their respective tables over the past week looking to prohibit the non-consensual tracking of individuals with some exceptions made for the guardians of minors and the elderly and select law enforcement cases. The two bills, as first reported by Android Police, seem likely to be passed as they've both received bipartisan support, but have raised many questions regarding GPS tracking and the law.

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Person holding an Apple AirTag.

Apple has finally rolled out a promised update to its AirTag tracker that allows AirTags to chime with louder tones when separated from their owner's iPhone or other Apple device. The company had promised this as part of a package of updates in February, and the first such feature is rolling out.

"Tuning the unwanted tracking sound to more easily locate an unknown AirTag," Apple notes in the changelog for version 1.0.301. Alongside these changes, Apple has worked on other improvements to make AirTags less attractive as a stalking tool. The company has rolled out a new Tracker Detect app for Android users, as well as promised to increase precision in tracking unknown AirTags.

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Apple’s AirTags keep being tagged in domestic abuse cases
Apple AirTag close up.

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.

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