Apple AirTags are being used to stalk people. Can states stop it?

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Apple AirTags are being used to stalk people. Can states actually do something to stop it?

At first, Danielle Mathias wasn’t aware anything was amiss.

But after an evening out in Washington, D.C., a couple of weeks ago, a strange notification popped up on her phone — warning her that someone was using Apple’s Find My app to track her location, ostensibly via a pair of AirPod headphones.

Mathias didn’t have any AirPods on her. But after reading Twitter threads detailing similar cases, she began to suspect that someone was using a different Apple product — AirTags, designed to help people track their belongings — to follow her movements. Since their introduction in April 2021, AirTags have been misused by thieves, stalkers and even murderers.

Mathias never found an AirTag. But the phone notification she received included a map of her movements over the course of the evening, which disappeared as soon as she changed her phone settings to disable the tracking. Now, a handful of state legislatures are stepping into the ongoing safety debate with legislation designed to fill gaps in their criminal codes revealed by AirTag abuse. Lawmakers in Ohio and New Jersey have introduced bills that would criminalize tracking people unknowingly. Similar draft legislation is circulating in Pennsylvania. But those bills would do little to help people at the time they are being tracked. Previous reports found that at least 19 states currently have explicit laws against electronic tracking.

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Apple has tried to make it harder to abuse AirTags in this way. It announced a set of safety-related upgrades in February — including a message warning anyone setting up an AirTag that it should only be used to track their own belongings, making alerts that an AirTag is nearby louder and more noticeable, and notifying a person earlier that an unknown AirTag or other Apple device may be traveling with them. But many of these changes apply only to iPhone users; people who have Android phones must download Apple’s Tracker Detect app to receive alerts about unknown AirTags.

Asked by Grid to comment on the issue, an Apple spokesperson referred back to the company’s February statement announcing the safety upgrades.

In the meantime, reports of AirTag misuse continue to mount. “It’s incredibly anxiety inducing,” said Mathias. “When you leave your house, when you’re even just at home, because now somebody decided to do this [I have questions like], ‘Do they know where I live?’ I don’t even know how specific AirTags get so I’m like, ‘Do they know my apartment number?’”

Singling out digital trackers

The bills that have popped up in state legislatures all take the same general approach — explicitly making it illegal to track someone with AirTags or similar devices.

Democratic New Jersey Assemblyman Paul Moriarty signed on to sponsor the New Jersey bill after seeing reports of AirTag abuse. The bill would make tracking someone using a digital device without their consent a fourth-degree crime, which is a felony and can result in an 18-month prison sentence. “These things are very effective, and they’re very low cost and readily available,” Moriarty said. “There’s lots of legitimate uses for it. And absolutely, it’s very handy, but you know, as with many things, there are misuses of products and services that can be alarming.”

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The Ohio bill, which would “prohibit a person from knowingly installing a tracking device or application on another’s property without the other person’s consent,” was introduced in May after a local news investigation found that people without a prior history of stalking or domestic violence could not be penalized for electronically tracking people.

The Pennsylvania legislation, which was announced in January but has not yet been formally introduced, would prohibit Apple AirTags from being used for anything other than locating misplaced personal items.

In the meantime, people are already looking for ways to defeat Apple’s latest set of security measures to fight AirTag stalking.

“The biggest issue is that AirTags exist,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP). By their very nature, he added, AirTags are tools optimized for abuse.

This is because they are small — just a bit larger than the size of a quarter — and are only $29, with a pack of four costing only $99. They can be slipped into someone’s pocket or wallet and then used to track them. And they draw on many disparate data sources to perform their tracking function. Each AirTag emits a Bluetooth signal that can also be detected by nearby devices using Apple’s “Find My” network. Those devices send the AirTag’s location to Apple’s iCloud service, where the AirTag’s owner can follow its location on their Find My app — down to a few feet, in many cases.

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“Those alerts, and whether it’s the audible tone or they alert to iOS devices, can be helpful in some cases, but it’s clearly not enough to prevent, you know, a lot of the types of harms that can come,” Cahn said.

Multiple videos on YouTube lay out instructions for people to alter their AirTags so they don’t make noise, making it harder for targets to detect them. Cahn also noted TikTok videos that are touting AirTags as a way to track down someone to see if they’re cheating.

“Here’s a massive company that is profiting off of this easily abused device and then they’re outsourcing the cost of it to local police departments,” he added. “Clearly, there are other trackers on the market that can also be abused. But you know, this one is cheap, and it works very well globally.”

Mathias said she wishes Apple would try to screen people for a history of abuse before selling them AirTags, and let victims retain information from the device used to follow them — such as a map of where a device started to track them or first connected with their phone, rather than it disappearing once they’ve disabled access.

In the meantime, she’s still coping with the fears raised by her apparent brush with an AirTag stalker.


“The past few weeks since it happened, it’s just been kind of one of high anxiety and hyper-vigilance,” she said. “But also just frantically looking through my stuff every chance I get [to find the AirTag].”

Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.


  • Benjamin Powers
    Benjamin Powers

    Technology Reporter

    Benjamin Powers is a technology reporter for Grid where he explores the interconnection of technology and privacy within major stories.

TOPICS

Apple