AirTags: Proof that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

You have probably heard of Apple’s AirTag, launched in 2021, or similar devices from other companies, like T-Mobile’s SyncUP.  At first glance, they seem like a useful tool for keeping track of your stuff, and we can all see how it would be neat to be able to find something that we’ve lost, like a backpack, piece of luggage, etc. Unfortunately, like so many other pieces of technology, seemingly obvious safety risks were overlooked (or disregarded) and these trackers are being used in ways they shouldn’t be.

Stalked by an AirTag

AirTags and similar devices rely on BlueTooth to communicate with your phone, any else’s phone, and then the network to forward the tag info to their servers. Bluetooth itself is a security hole, you shouldn’t leave it on under any circumstances, especially away from home or office. Sure it might be inconvenient for you if you use a Bluetooth speaker, headset, etc. but we’re talking about your personal security here. Sometimes, we must trade convenience for security.

Put your ‘bad guy’ hat on for a minute, and consider what you could do if you wanted to find someone; maybe you’re a domestic abuser looking for your estranged spouse or a stalker preying on someone. Because AirTags and similar devices tend to be lightweight and small, you could easily slip it into your target’s bag, leave it in their car or sneak it into their luggage.

There have been numerous headlines and social media posts about people who’ve received notifications indicating that an unknown AirTag was moving with them.

Apple’s Solution

Early on, Apple introduced a software update that would inform users when there was an unrecognized AirTag nearby. Note that this wasn’t done till after the product was out! Additional versions have refined the feature, however, that hasn’t put an end to the risks associated with location trackers.

In response to the recent boom in news coverage, Apple included an update in the upcoming iOS 15.4 that will include a warning not to use AirTags for nefarious purposes. According to Apple:

“In an upcoming software update, every user setting up their AirTag for the first time will see a message that clearly states that AirTag is meant to track their own belongings, that using AirTag to track people without consent is a crime in many regions around the world, that AirTag is designed to be detected by victims, and that law enforcement can request identifying information about the owner of the AirTag.”

Why a warning isn’t enough

Have you ever walked into a store and noticed a “shoplifters will be prosecuted” sign? Guess what: People still shoplift. While Apple’s new warning may make some shy away from misusing the devices, those who truly have bad intentions won’t think twice about it.

In reality, these products shouldn’t be on the market until every potential security risk has been addressed. By stopping the sale of AirTags and similar devices, these companies can truly show that they value people over profit. The best companies are those who can admit they’ve made a mistake – especially since people’s lives are at stake.

You don’t need an AirTag.

Trackers are still relatively new tools – so why are we allowing ourselves to be so dependent on them when it comes to not losing our stuff? It used to be that when you flew and checked luggage, you’d make sure that all your critical stuff was in your carry on, just in case your bag got lost…seems like a reasonable risk and reward to me, you don’t have to buy anything, you can get paid back for what you’ve lost if the airline loses it, etc. If we have good practices with our stuff (i.e. backups of your files on computers, photos, documents), then even though a lost piece of tech would be painful, it would not be crippling.

Just because we can come up with some technology doesn’t mean we should use it, at least without thinking it fully through. Greed is the big factor here (but that’s something for another blog).

Kirk Sullivan

Kirk Sullivan