Apple AirTags – Stalking made easy in the age of convenience

By: Kayleigh McNiel

Marketed as a means of locating lost or stolen items, Apple AirTags are a convenient and affordable tool for tracking down your lost keys, misplaced luggage, and even your ex-partner. Weighing less than half an ounce, these small tracking devices fit in the palm of your hand and can be easily hidden inside backpacks, purses, and vehicles without arousing the owner’s suspicion. 

Reports of AirTag stalking began emerging almost immediately upon their release in April of 2021. Apple’s assurances that AirTag’s built-in abuse prevention features would protect against “unwanted tracking” have fallen woefully short of the reality that these $29 devices are increasingly being used to monitor, surveil and stalk women across the country.

The Wrong Tool in the Wrong Hands – Women Are Being Targeted with AirTags

Through an expansive review of 150 police reports involving Apple AirTags from eight law enforcement agencies across the nation, an investigative report by Motherboard confirmed the disturbing truth. One third of the reports were filed by women who received notifications that they were being tracked by someone else’s AirTag. The majority of these cases involved women being stalked by a current or former partner. Of the 150 reports reviewed by Motherboard, less than half involved people using their own AirTags to find their lost or stolen property.   

AirTags pose a significant danger to victims of domestic violence and have been used in at least two grisly murders. In January 2022, Heidi Moon, a 43-year-old mother from Akron, Ohio, was shot and killed by her abusive ex-boyfriend who tracked her movements using an AirTag hidden in the back seat of her car. In June 2022, Andre Smith, a 26-year-old Indianapolis man, died after he was repeatedly run over by his girlfriend after she found him at a bar with another woman by tracking him with an AirTag.

It’s not just domestic violence victims who are in danger. Stories are emerging on social media of women discovering AirTags under their license plate covers or receiving notifications that they are being tracked after traveling in public places. One woman’s viral TikTok describes how she received repeated notifications that an unknown device was tracking her after visiting a Walmart in Texas. Unable to locate the device, she tried unsuccessfully to disable it, and continued receiving notifications even after she turned off the location services and Bluetooth on all of her Apple devices.   

In January 2022, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model Book Nader discovered that a stranger slipped an Apple AirTag into her coat pocket while she was sitting in a restaurant. The device tracked her location for hours before the built-in safety mechanism triggered a notification sent to her phone. 

One Georgia woman, Anna Mahaney, began receiving the alerts after going to a shopping mall but was unable to locate the tracker. When she tried to disable the device, she received an error message that it was unable to connect to the server. She immediately went to an Apple Store for help and was told that no beep sounded because the owner of the AirTag had apparently tracked her until she got home and then disabled it

Apple’s haphazard release of these button-sized trackers, with near complete disregard for the danger they pose to the public, has resulted in a recent federal class action lawsuit filed by two California women who were stalked by men using AirTags. One plaintiff, identified only as Jane Doe, was tracked by her ex-husband who hid an AirTag in their child’s backpack. The other plaintiff, Lauren Hughes, fled her home and moved into a hotel after being stalked and threatened by a man she dated for only three months. After she began receiving notifications that an AirTag was tracking her, Hughes found one in the wheel well of her back tire. 

The plaintiffs in Hughes et al v. Apple, Inc., 3:22-cv-07668, say Apple ignored the warnings from advocates and put the safety of consumers and the general public at risk by “revolutionizing the scope, breadth, and ease of location-based stalking.” 

The Tech Behind the Tags – Insufficient Safety Warnings and a Lack of Prevention

AirTags work by establishing a Bluetooth connection with nearby Apple devices. Once connected, it uses that device’s GPS and internet connection to transmit the AirTag’s location to the iCloud where users can track it via the Find My app. With a vast network of more than 1.8 billion Apple devices worldwide, AirTags can essentially track anyone, anywhere.  

While the accuracy of Bluetooth tracking can vary, newer iPhone devices (models 11 and up) come equipped with ultra-wide broadband technology that allows AirTag owners to use Precision Tracking to get within feet of its location

In its initial release in April 2021, Apple included minimal safety measures including alerts that inform iPhone users if someone else’s AirTag had been traveling with them.Additionally, AirTags chime if separated from its owner after three days. 

When someone discovers an AirTag and taps it with their iPhone, it tells them only the information the owner allows. If an AirTag has been separated from its owner for somewhere between eight and twenty-four hours, it begins chirping regularly. By then, the AirTag owner may have already been able to track their target for hours, learning where they live, work, or go to school. The chirp is only about 60 decibels which is the average sound level of a restaurant or office. This sound is easy to muffle especially if the AirTag is hidden under a car license plate or in a wheel well. This quiet alarm is the only automatic protection against stalking Apple can provide to those who do not have an iPhone. 

Apple did eventually release an app that Android users can download to scan for rogue AirTags, but it requires Android users to know about AirTag tracking and then manually scan for the devices. With only 2.4 stars, many complain that it is ineffective and does not provide enough information.  

In response to the wave of criticism and reports of stalking and harassment, Apple has begun to increase these safety measures in piecemeal updates, which so far have failed to resolve the problem. Just three months after its release, Apple shortened the amount of time it takes for AirTags to chime if separated from its owner; from three days to somewhere between eight and twenty-four hours. But it’s easy to register an AirTag, and then disable it before the target begins receiving notifications.

Our Legal Systems Are Not Prepared to Protect Victims From AirTag Stalking.

Our criminal and civil legal systems are painfully slow to respond to the way technology has changed the way we engage with our families and communities and how we experience harm in those relationships. One of the biggest challenges victims face in reporting AirTag stalking is that many police departments and Courts do not even know what AirTags are or how they can be used to harass and stalk women.

In some states, it is not even a crime to monitor someone’s movements with a tracking device like an AirTag without their knowledge or consent. At least 26 states and the District of Columbia have some kind of law prohibiting the tracking of others without their knowledge. While 11 of these states, including Washington, incorporate this into their stalking statutes, nine others (Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin) only prohibit the use of location-tracking devices on motor vehicles without the owner’s consent. These state laws do nothing to protect against AirTags being placed in your bag or purse. These laws also don’t protect those who share a vehicle with their abuser, since the other party is also technically the owner of the vehicle. 

Many states are rapidly seeing the need to beef up their laws in response to AirTags. The Attorneys General of both New York and Pennsylvania have issued consumer protection alerts warning people about the dangers of AirTags. But much more needs to be done.

The fact that Apple released this product without considering the disproportionate impact it would have on the safety of women across the globe shows a clear lack of diversity in Apple’s design and manufacturing process. 

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