Apple launched its latest AirTags last week, which are $29 location-tracking fobs that can help you locate your keys or purse anywhere on the planet. Tech journalists have since reviewed and praised the units, which are around the size of a quarter.
However, representatives from the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), a leading nonprofit dedicated to reducing violence against women, demonstrate why technology also has unforeseen consequences.
Although Apple AirTags are a low-cost, simple-to-use product for finding a missing object, the organization’s representatives claim that they are also a concerning surveillance tool that could be used by an abuser to monitor a partner invisibly. To track where anyone goes, all they have to do is slip an AirTag into their bag or jacket pocket.
Erica Olsen, a safety net project director at NNEDV, says, “When somebody tries to leave an abusive person, or they are planning to leave, that can be one of the most dangerous times that stalking and assault can escalate. So it’s extremely important if people are planning to leave an abusive person, they’re able to do so without the person tracking them down and finding them. It’s definitely a concern that people will be using any type of [tracking] product they can.”
Apple’s Find My network is used by AirTags. Nearly a billion active Apple devices, including iPhones and Macs, can be tracked using the network.
Apple believes that by alerting an iPhone user if someone else’s tag has been put on their person, as well as having AirTags chime after three days if they’ve been unpaired with their source iPhone, it will deter stalking.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SURVEILLANCE AND ABUSE
For survivors of domestic violence, surveillance devices may be a significant problem. Before she knew the culprit was a locater placed in her vehicle, a woman in Houston was being pursued relentlessly by her ex.
Based on NNDEV’s statement, it is now common practice for halfway houses to discuss the technology that an individual is carrying or has left behind. Staff can ensure that options such as Find My iPhone are switched off on smartphones, which are the most obvious trackers.
They’ll often check the bags of survivors for possible trackers. “There are many instances, in doing that, they have discovered a tracker in a bag, or a stuffed animal a little kid brought,” says Olsen.
By no way are AirTags the first mass-market surveillance device, nor are they the first tracking device. Several white papers on the risks of technology for domestic violence survivors have been written by NNDEV.
One of the most pressing issues for survivors is that they can’t afford to leave a precarious situation without access to technology such as their phone or laptop, which connects them to friends, family, and a wealth of basic information and services.
This device has some safeguards built in by Apple. If you have an iPhone and someone places an AirTag on you, your phone will eventually notify you that an AirTag that isn’t yours has been discovered “moving with you.”
Apple didn’t say how frequently or how easily this message would appear, but it did say it would happen when you arrive at your home (the address stored in your Apple “Me” card) or at some other places that your phone has learned you frequent over time. Apple refused to include any further information, citing the need for public safety.
If you’re an Android user—remember, Android accounted for 87 percent of global mobile market share in 2019—you’re not covered by Apple’s network alerts.
Instead, an AirTag that hasn’t matched with its iPhone locally in three days can make a noise. So, if you’re an Android user who’s been unknowingly assigned an AirTag, you’ll know in 72 hours.
However, if you’re an Android user living with an iPhone abuser, a secret AirTag might be pairing even more frequently.
This is part of Apple’s broader product growth “walled garden” strategy. In general, Apple’s walled gardens mean that Android users appear in iMessages as second-class citizens or are unable to connect to FaceTime calls.
These decisions encourage consumers to stay in the Apple community and spend money on Apple products. However, unlike iPhone users, any Android user can be discreetly monitored by an AirTag for a longer period of time with AirTags. Apple has created a product that sits atop its unrivaled network of devices, putting consumers outside of it in greater risk.
Abusers who live with Android-using partners will continuously pair and re-pair an AirTag to avoid setting off an alarm, a problem so fundamental to the nature of AirTags that it’s unclear whether it can be solved with a software tweak.
“Three days won’t work if you’re going home every day to the same person tracking you. . . . That’s a learning space [that] hopefully Apple will consider and work to build in protections with that threat model,” says Corbin Streett, technology safety specialist at NNEDV. “[Apple] is thinking about the threat model where it’s a stalker who is walking by someone on the street they don’t know—that stranger danger model—but what about when it is the person you come home to every day?”
Apple, and all other companies that produce tracking devices, may be treating items like AirTags differently, according to Streett. Apple should have teamed up with Google to create a common standard (as they did with their COVID-19 contact-tracking apps) so that AirTags would provide the same level of security to all. At the very least, this will provide Android users with the same security against AirTags as Apple users.
“I lose my keys and wallet all the time!” says Streett. “But how do you build it in a way that those folks who are in relationships, so that this can’t be used against them? I hope Apple keeps their learning hat on and works to figure out that piece of the puzzle.”
If you are a survivor of domestic violence or are concerned about someone who may be, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224. (TTY).