Conceived as an aid for the absent-minded, AirTag sensors are being diverted towards more sinister ends, with manufacturer Apple facing anger — and lawsuits — over their use as a stalking tool.
The silver and white gadget the size of a large coin is “an easy way to keep track of your stuff,” the Apple website boasts. Customers can attach it to their keys, a wallet or a backpack.
When linked to a smartphone app, a $29 AirTag helps users detect their belongings’ real-time location in case they get lost — but the transmitter can also trail the humans carrying those items, sometimes without their knowledge.
That’s what happened to singer Alison Carney in June 2022, when she found an unknown AirTag in her bag while preparing to go on stage at a concert venue in Chicago.
Carney had not put the AirTag in there herself and says she never got an iPhone notification warning her an unknown accessory was found nearby.
– ‘Violated’ –
Though unsettling, the discovery helped Carney make sense of several confusing events in her life.
Ever since the end of their tumultuous relationship, Carney’s ex-boyfriend had been incessantly calling and messaging, even pounding on her door in the middle of the night or showing up at restaurants where she was eating.
“It just became obvious once we found the AirTag that… I wasn’t crazy,” Carney, who lives in Washington, told AFP. “I know that someone’s tracking (me).”
“I felt violated. I retreated. I stopped going out,” she added.
“I know that someone has the ability to put a device on my body or on my property that can track me for the rest of my life, and they’re getting smaller and smaller and smaller and harder to detect.”
Carney is not alone in having been tracked against her will with an AirTag.
Last June, a 26-year-old man in Indiana was killed by his girlfriend, who followed his location via AirTag after becoming suspicious he was cheating on her, according to court documents.
Police in the town of Irving, Texas, are also looking into several recent incidents involving AirTags in which the victim and stalker already knew each other, said police spokesman Robert Reeves.
According to Reeves, the next step after a complaint is filed is to identify the owner of the account associated with the AirTag, using the object’s serial number.
But since Carney did not file a police report, for fear of retribution, she has not been able to find out for sure who is behind the rogue AirTag found in her bag.
When asked about the situation, Apple sent AFP a statement published last year, in which the tech giant condemns “in the strongest possible terms any malicious use of our products.”
The company also said it has updated its systems to warn AirTag buyers they may be committing a crime by using the product to secretly track another person, and to alert Apple users when a device notices an unknown tracker traveling with them.
– Complaints against Apple –
But that reassurance is not enough to convince Lauren Hughes or a woman going by the pseudonym Jane Doe, who have both filed complaints against Apple in California.
Doe says that after a divorce, her ex-husband tacked an AirTag onto her child’s backpack twice.
And in a complaint filed in December, Hughes says she found an AirTag — colored on with a marker and wrapped in a plastic bag — attached to the wheel well of her car.
In court documents, both women call out Apple for what they see as an insufficient warning system. AirTag alerts sent out by the company are not necessarily immediate, and are only available on iPhones with iOS 14.5 or newer.
Besides older Apple devices, users of Androids or other smartphone operating systems are also left out, according to Albert Cahn, Technology and Human Rights Fellow at Harvard University.
Apple devices are constantly scanning for unknown accessories nearby, Cahn explained to AFP. But Android users have to download a special app and then specifically look for potentially nefarious AirTags.
“Does Apple expect Android users to spend their days constantly checking just to make sure they’re not being tracked?” he asked.