Google and Apple Team Up to Stop Unwanted AirTag Tracking
Apple AirTags are handy Bluetooth trackers that let you keep tabs on your stuff, but there's a risk that hackers and stalkers can use them to track you. Here's what you can do about it.
If you’re anything like most people, you have a checklist of things you never leave home without—namely, those must-have items such as your phone, wallet, keys and maybe a bag with even more stuff in it. Chances are also good that, at some point, you’ve had one or more of these items go missing, or worse, had something stolen from you. Enter the humble Bluetooth tracker, a relatively new gadget that lets you keep tabs on your other gadgets (or your keys, your purse, your luggage or whatever else you don’t want to lose).
A Bluetooth tracker is a simple device, typically about the size of a large coin, that you can attach to any items you want to keep track of. The Bluetooth tracker emits a signal for nearby devices to detect. If an item gets left behind, falls into the wrong hands or falls between the couch cushions, you can use the Bluetooth tracker’s signal to find it. Apple AirTag and Tile are the two most popular Bluetooth tracker brands; if you’re an iPhone user, you will likely favor Apple’s offering. However, as handy as these trackers may be, there’s a risk that someone could gain unauthorized access to your AirTag, or use one of their own to secretly track you. Apple and Google are working on a solution to this problem, but here’s what you can do now.
How do Apple AirTags work?
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The concept of a Bluetooth tracker is pretty straightforward. An Apple AirTag is essentially a little homing beacon that broadcasts a wireless signal, allowing other devices to detect its location. If the lost item is nearby, you can find it using one of your own devices. However, that won’t be possible if the missing object (with an attached Bluetooth tracker) is far away, such as if you left it somewhere in public. In this case, you need to rely on a network of users to find your stuff.
The advantage of AirTags is that they work with Apple’s huge “Find My” ecosystem. Most American smartphone users favor iPhones. As you probably know, your smartphone is always connected to a network as long as it’s on, even when you’re not using it. That always-on connectivity allows it to detect nearby networks and devices (perhaps you’ve shared something with a friend or colleague via AirDrop by connecting your device to theirs), including Bluetooth trackers.
Let’s say you had an AirTag in your bag and you left it at a restaurant you were at a few hours ago. The AirTag in your bag is outside your phone’s Bluetooth range—but it’s not outside the range of other people’s iPhones. You mark the item as lost in the Find My app. Any Apple device in the Find My network that detects your AirTag nearby will notify you of its location, greatly increasing the chances of you being able to locate your missing item. This “crowdsourced tracking” highlights the advantage of using Bluetooth trackers connected to a broad network of users, as AirTags are.
Sounds pretty handy, right? But while modern technology offers a lot of conveniences, it also serves as a tool for bad actors such as stalkers and cybercriminals. As useful as these Bluetooth trackers can be in keeping tabs on your things, there’s always the risk that someone could use an AirTag to stalk you. There are two main ways stalkers can do this: First, they can gain unauthorized access to your AirTags, and use that to track your location. Alternatively, they could plant one of their trackers somewhere they think you won’t find it.
What are Google and Apple doing about it?
Although AirTags are tailor-made for use with Apple devices, they’re hardly limited just to iPhones and iPads. Apple AirTag Google compatibility allows you to use Bluetooth tracking with Android devices. The good news is that Apple and Google are working to address unauthorized tracking and stalking. The two companies announced in a recent press release that they’re collaborating to create industry security standards concerning Bluetooth trackers and build upon existing privacy features.
Apple devices already have some built-in security and privacy options available to users. The press release made it clear that these features will also soon be available on Android devices. Furthermore, Apple users can already receive tracking alerts through the Find My app, which notify users when a Bluetooth tracker is moving with them. Again, this functionality is coming to Android devices. Finally, the proposed industry specifications will make it easier for other popular brands, such as Tile, to use these privacy features and build them into their Bluetooth trackers.
How do I know if an AirTag is tracking me?
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Although Apple and Google are currently drafting new Bluetooth tracker industry specifications and expanding existing security features (which should happen by the end of 2023), there are actions you can take now to protect yourself. Here’s how to find and disable a hidden AirTag that someone could be using to track your movements:
- If an AirTag is within range of your iPhone (or other compatible Apple device), you should receive a notification that says “AirTag Found Moving With You.” Tap on the notification to see more details about the AirTag. If you receive this alert and don’t own an AirTag, someone could be using the tracker to follow your movements.
- You can use the Find My app on your iPhone, iPad or Mac to check for nearby AirTags and uncover any hidden trackers someone might have planted. Open the app and look for AirTags under the “Items” tab. If you see an AirTag you don’t recognize, tap on it for more information.
- If you suspect an AirTag is tracking you without your consent, disable it by removing the battery or placing it in Lost Mode. To remove the battery, press down on the back cover and twist it counterclockwise. To place the AirTag in Lost Mode, select the AirTag in the Find My app and tap “Enable” under “Lost Mode.” Follow the prompts and then tap “Activate.” This prevents the AirTag from tracking your location and will notify you if someone finds it.
Should you find an AirTag that isn’t yours but appears to have been planted by someone else, report it to the police. Each AirTag has a unique serial number, which can help identify the owner or purchaser of the tracker. You can find this serial number in the Find My app when you tap on the notification for that AirTag. You’ll also see the last four digits of the owner’s phone number.