Apple’s Airtag: How Private Is It?
A great new technology brings up some interesting privacy implications.
I haven’t bought Apple AirTags yet. But when I first heard about the tech, my ADHD heart skipped a beat. The new devices can be attached to practically anything and located with Apple’s Find My app. No more wondering where I left my keys! Which I always intend to put away in the same place! But somehow never manage to do!
Talk about indispensable tech for the absent-minded. And yet nothing’s perfect. First, there’s the obvious chicken/egg problem of what happens if you lose your phone itself. Do you get a second phone to find your first phone? What if you lose the second phone?! It’s iPhones all the way down, Mr. James!
’Cause I Got One AirTag In My Pocket
But there’s a scarier privacy concern as well. What happens if you find an AirTag in your belongings…that isn’t yours?
That’s the question raised by an article in the Japanese publication Bunshun online. (Note: All translations from this article are by me.) Author Yamaguchi Masahiro brings up the frightening prospect that someone could be using the tech to track you.
持ち物追跡タグでストーカー被害に遭ったらどうする？使わない人も知っておきたい、自衛のためのApple「AirTag」の基礎知識 | 文春オンライン
Sadly, sexual assault and stalking are worldwide problems. Japan is no exception. In fact, police in the country are so bad about responding to complaints that one company developed an app to help women report molesters and creeps. One man in Japan was even charged for stalking a 21-year-old idol after finding where she lived based on the reflection of scenery in her eye.
In other words, it’s less a matter of whether someone in Japan — or elsewhere — will abuse this technology and more a matter of when.
Turn That Bad Boy In
It’s true that the AirTag will eventually run out of power. Unfortunately, “eventually” is about a year.
Sadly, the threat isn’t a short-lived one. It’s true that, as Yamaguchi points out, the AirTag will eventually run out of power. Unfortunately, “eventually” is about a year. This is one situation, sadly, where efficient engineering is not your friend. Left undetected, someone could have easily used an AirTag to map out your entire daily routine.
I can actually see an even more frightening scenario: theft. What if someone steals an item bearing an AirTag in an attempt to meet its owner? The potential for abuse is staggering.
Fortunately, Apple recognized this and has worked to account for it. AirTags have a detection feature that will alert you if the service discovers that an AirTag you don’t own is moving with you. The Find My app will also help you find the tag.
Yamaguchi tells his readers that, should you find a Mystery AirTag in your possession, you should “move to a place that’s heavily trafficked, like a train station, while it’s still transmitting,” and then remove the battery in that location. (AirTags use a standard CR2032 coin-cell battery.) Once it’s removed, deliver the device to the police.
I’m happy to see that Apple’s engineers have considered the privacy implications of AirTag technology. They seem to have put more thought into protecting their consumers than the automobile industry has with keyless fobs. (According to Forbes UK, as late as October 2020, 14 car manufacturers told reporters they had zero plans to address fob security.)
That said, it’s still up to us as consumers to be on the alert. If you get an alert about an AirTag you don’t own, be sure to address it immediately.