Apple AirTags: How to Protect Yourself From Being Tracked
AirTags can be used to stalk someone's location. We've got some tips to safeguard against the risk.
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Managing Editor Alison DeNisco Rayome joined CNET in 2019, and is a member of the Home team. She is a co-lead of the CNET Tips and We Do the Math series, and manages the Home Tips series, testing out new hacks for cooking, cleaning and tinkering with all of the gadgets and appliances in your house. Alison was previously an editor at TechRepublic.
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Apple's AirTag tracking devices promise to help you locate lost keys, bags or other items -- but there's also a risk that someone could use one of the small discs to try to track you.
Apple has built-in certain protections to discourage unwanted tracking, but it's still possible for someone to slip an AirTag into your bag or car without your consent and track your location. And unfortunately, there are few ways to detect if someone is using an AirTag (or any similar device, like a Tile or Samsung SmartTag tracker) to follow you.
"Location tracking is a serious concern for survivors and a common tactic of abuse," said Erica Olsen, director of the Safety Net Project at the nonprofit National Network to End Domestic Violence. "Apple is getting a lot of attention because of the size of their network, which can make these devices more precise than other similar tracking devices. We are concerned about all possible tracking options because of the safety risks."
So what can you do to try to protect yourself from being tracked by an AirTag?
New tech, same old privacy concerns
AirTags use a combination of sensors, wireless signals and Apple's extensive Find My network to help people locate lost items. Apple built in several safeguards to prevent the devices from being used to track people -- an industry first. However, many have noted that those protections may not be enough to protect victims.
At launch, these included a notification that says "AirTag Found Moving With You" -- but only if you have an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch running iOS or iPadOS 14.5 or later. In December, Apple released the Tracker Detect app for Android, which lets you search for and track items compatible with Apple's Find My network, such as AirTags.
Apple also initially had AirTags make a noise if separated from their owner after three days. With the update, that alarm will sound at a random time inside a window lasting between 8 and 24 hours.
The privacy concerns around AirTags are part of a larger issue, Olsen said.
"Technology doesn't cause abuse, but it can facilitate it," Olsen said. "Abusive people will use any tactic they can to establish power and control so it's not uncommon for someone to be misusing a number of technologies and perpetrating non-tech-related abuse as well."
Any time a new Internet of Things product is introduced, it's going to raise some red flags, said Zarmeena Waseem, director of cybersecurity education at the National Cybersecurity Alliance. The release of a product like AirTags is in some ways similar to a new operating system, she added -- Apple will find issues and then mitigate them in later updates, as we've already seen.
AirTags are different from stalkerware, or software that someone installs on your device without your knowledge or consent that transmits your private information -- like your text messages, social media communications and your location -- to their device. But using a device like an AirTag to monitor someone's location could be a first stage of stalking, particularly if the abuser doesn't have physical access to your phone or laptop, said Victor Chebyshev, lead security researcher on the Global Research and Analysis Team at security firm Kaspersky.
"We're sure this will happen... anyone can be a victim," Chebyshev said. "And the problem is that victims right now do not have an effective solution to this problem."
While the new, earlier alert sent to iPhone users is a good step, the 24-hour period it could take is still too long, Chebyshev added. From a security perspective, it would be best to inform the user in a few hours, within a randomized time frame after the AirTag is connected. (Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.)
How can I protect myself from being tracked by AirTags?
If you believe your safety is at risk, Apple advises you to contact your local law enforcement, who can work with the company (you might need to provide the AirTag or its serial number). However, some victims may be unable to do this. Here are some other potential solutions for preventing someone from stalking you with an AirTag.
Manually search yourself
The most basic form of protection is to manually search yourself and your car for places where an AirTag may have been slipped -- the pockets of your clothes or bags, or under cushions, for example. However, this isn't the most effective, since AirTags are so small and can be easily hidden.
Try to narrow it down
If you suspect someone is using an AirTag or similar device to track you, you should consider what information they seem to know, and try to narrow down the items you have with you during those times, Olsen said. This can help you identify if something may be in your personal belongings, your car, or in your home.
Invest in a Bluetooth tracker
AirTags use Bluetooth signals to connect to Apple's Find My network. You can use Bluetooth tracking apps to scan your area to see if an AirTag is nearby. While the apps won't identify AirTags by name, they may help you see if there is an unknown device nearby. A couple options noted by Macworld include Bluetooth BLE Device Finder and BLE Scanner.
Watch this: Apple AirTags made a good small impression
If you have an iPhone, you can download Apple's Find My app and hold the AirTag up to your device. Find the name of the AirTag and tap it. The serial number will appear under the name. Alternatively, you can tap and hold the top of your NFC-capable iPhone or Android phone to the white side of the AirTag, then tap the notification that appears. The webpage that opens will show the serial number. (You can also find it on the battery by removing it, but that will make it so the owner can't see your location.) Again, this information can be helpful if you end up needing to go to law enforcement.
Disable the AirTag
If you find an AirTag on you, you can easily disable it to stop sharing your location by twisting counter-clockwise on the back by the Apple logo and taking the battery out. The person on the other end will no longer be able to see your location.
However, if you do find out that you are being tracked, particularly by a current or former intimate partner, domestic violence experts recommend coming up with a safety plan and consulting with a domestic violence service before turning off the tracker.