Apple’s changes seek to make it harder for criminals to track you using AirTags
Apple announced several changes on Thursday to the way its AirTag product works as the $29 quarter-sized tracker is being linked to suspected crimes, including stalking and car theft.
Apple said it will update the iPhone and AirTag software to show a message during setup that using AirTags to track people is a crime in many regions around the world, and that law enforcement can request its associated user information.
The Big Tech company will also introduce a feature it calls Precision Finding, which will point iPhone users to unknown AirTags when they’re nearby.
The changes are the most significant attempts Apple has made to date to limit the privacy and stalking downsides of the product that went on sale last April.
Apple added that it’s working with law enforcement to provide serial number and Apple ID information in response to subpoenas related to AirTag crimes. It also said it has been able to work with authorities in some cases to find suspects who were subsequently arrested and charged.
Apple markets AirTags as a lost item finder useful for attaching to things like your keys, wallet and backpack. The product uses Bluetooth signals and a global network of other people’s iPhones to calculate where an AirTag is and display it on a map in the user’s Find My app. Because iPhones are common in urban areas, an AirTag effectively can pinpoint its location to a small area.
AirTags don’t use GPS, and the company says it employs advanced encryption to make AirTags “private and secure” by ensuring anonymity for iPhones in the Find My network.
But after they were released, AirTags started showing up in alleged crimes. For example, thieves could place one in a car in order to track the motorist’s destination, and then, using their own Find My app, obtain an ideal location for a robbery, police allege. Alleged victims also reported on social media that AirTags were slipped into women’s pockets at bars or clubs in an example of stalking.
Police in Colorado, Georgia, Michigan and Texas have reported the misuse of AirTags, NBC News previously reported.
Apple said on Thursday that incidents of AirTag misuse are “rare” and that it has built tools into iPhones to alert users of unwanted tracking. Lost item trackers, like those made by Tile, existed before Apple released AirTag.
“AirTag was designed to help people locate their personal belongings, not to track people or another person’s property, and we condemn in the strongest possible terms any malicious use of our products,” Apple said. “Unwanted tracking has long been a societal problem, and we took this concern seriously in the design of AirTag.”
In December, Apple launched an Android app for AirTags called Tracker Detect, which looks for unknown AirTags (like one placed by a criminal) within Bluetooth range. Phones with recent software automatically detect AirTags that aren’t in an owner’s possession and play a sound. Apple said on Thursday that it would make the AirTag’s sound louder, and will show a popup to nearby users when there’s another person’s AirTag nearby. In addition, users can disable AirTags they find by taking the cover off and removing the battery.
The company previously said that only the owner of an AirTag will be able to see where to find their lost item protector. This will slightly change in a future software update. A new feature called Precision Finding allows people with recent iPhones to precisely locate unknown AirTags through “a combination of sound, haptics and visual feedback.”
Apple hasn’t released sales figures for AirTags, but at $29 apiece, it is unlikely to be a big driver of sales. However, it is strategic for Apple: Features like the Find My app make users more likely to upgrade to another iPhone.
Company marketing has focused on privacy and security as a major reason to buy its products, and the reports of stalking and crimes using AirTags is forcing the technology giant to walk a fine line between offering a useful lost item finder and the downside of making location tracking available to anyone with an iPhone and a $29 tracker.