Apple AirTags are a potential privacy nightmare
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Apple's tiny little AirTags have a noble mission: to help you "lose your knack for losing things," as Apple would tell you. They are designed to help you find your keys, backpack, bicycle, and basically anything you attach them to.
However, after using them for a while, I have also found that their incredible power in the form of a network of a billion iPhones across the globe that help you locate an AirTag, can also easily turn them into a privacy nightmare.
your backpack. However, if you have bad intentions of stalking another person, the small size of the AirTags can turn into a privacy nightmare for your victim.See, AirTags are tiny and they can easily go unnoticed even in a backpack, which is great if you just want to track
Protection only for iPhone users
Imagine that someone wanted to find out exactly where you go at any time and exactly where you live. That someone has AirTags on hand and they only know one thing: the person they want to stalk is NOT using an iPhone. This is important because Apple has baked in a bit of extra protection from unwanted tracking for Apple users, but not for Android users. See, if you are an iPhone user, you will get a notification if a stranger's AirTag starts moving with you for a certain period of time (it took 5 hours and 30 minutes of an AirTag traveling with you until a notification popped on the tracked person's iPhone in our testing).
iPhone users will get notified if a stranger's AirTag is traveling with them. We tried it and got this notification after 5 hours and 30 minutes, which is quite a while, but Android users don't get any notification on their phones at all
If you are an Android user, however, you don't get any notification on your phone. Nada.
In fact, the only way an AirTag will try to signal that it is being misused for stalking is by chirping lightly for 15 seconds, but that only occurs after 3 days!
You could theoretically track an Android user for a whole year without them even suspecting
Let that sink in! Three whole days! A. there is a lot of tracking that can happen in three days, and B. chirping for 15 seconds is something you may not even hear. An AirTag will then go silent for a few hours and then again start signaling for another 15 seconds (with that same chirping sound played at 60 decibels, which is not very loud at all).
A perfect tool for a stalker
Back to our theoretical example of our co-worker who has a stalker. That stalker can easily slip an AirTag inside a bag at a coffee shop or if they know the car of the person they want to stalk, they can easily attach an AirTag to the bottom of that car using strong adhesive. A stalker could even go one step further if they were prepared in their evil plans, and could even tape a tiny sound-muffling acoustic panel to an AirTag to silence it. This way, with an AirTag practically muted and out of sight on the bottom of a car, it will take pure luck to ever find it!
You could theoretically track a person for a whole year until the battery on that AirTag dies and if that person uses an Android phone, they won't ever know!
That is an absolute privacy nightmare!
Take this example to an extreme, and you could imagine an extremely imaginative person who's trying to stalk an important person think of custom solutions to solder an AirTag to a car so it is impossible to notice.
Stalking our co-workers is a game for us here to try (with their permission of course and do stay tuned for that article, it's coming soon!), but imagine the scary consequences of an evil mind using that power.
A stalker risks being sued, but it's complicated
Finally, there is one last consideration here: Apple has marked each AirTag with a unique serial number printed physically on the AirTag (you can see it once you remove the battery). Additionally, you can also hold an AirTag close to a phone with NFC and a link will pop up that will also show you the serial number of that AirTag. Then, with a court order, Apple could reveal who that AirTag is registered to and there could be dire consequences after that, but that is one big if: first, you need an actual court order and second, this suggests that you have actually found that AirTag in the first place.
Of course, AirTags are extremely easy to disable if a person who is being stalked finds them: simply press on the metal cap on the bottom, twist it counter-clockwise, and remove the battery, and all of their stalking powers are gone. But again: you have to find them first to do that.
All of this leaves me extremely worried: AirTags can and will be misused, and everyone needs better protection.
In order to avoid plenty of trouble, Apple and Google HAVE to work together, so that Android users are also warned with a notification if someone is trying to stalk them, and this needs to happen ASAP. But is that even possible with Apple's Find My network being an exclusive thing? We are not so sure, and until then, AirTags might be just as dangerous, as they are cool.