AirTag needs big changes to become less criminal-friendly | Cult of Mac

AirTag needs big changes to become less criminal-friendly

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Maybe Apple should just dump AirTag
Creeps love AirTag. But there are changes Apple could make so it would be much less useful for criminals.
Photo: Apple/Cult of Mac

New York’s attorney general issued a warning Wednesday about AirTags being used to secretly track people. And this is only the latest in a growing controversy over misuse of Apple’s tracking tags.

Perhaps Apple should drop the item tracker completely. At the very least, the functionality needs to be scaled way back.

AirTag is a stalker’s best friend

Apple’s AirTag is supposed to help you find your keys, purse or whatever you attach the tracker to when you misplace the item. You can search for the AirTag with a wireless signal it emits, but its real strength is its access to Apple’s Find My network.

An AirTag can be detected by any Apple computer, and the owner will be notified of the current location. So if you leave your keys at the train station, for instance, you can find them from across town if they get near somebody else’s iPhone.

But Apple’s tracker tag can be abused easily. As New York Attorney General Letitia James warned, “Individuals have reported finding unknown AirTags attached to their cars, and in their purses, coat pockets, and other personal property.”

Creeps/criminals tracking people or their possessions with AirTags have been in the news a lot lately. And it could get much worse. It seems only a matter of time before we see a detective being interviewed on TV saying, “We believe the perpetrator tracked the victim across the city with an AirTag he’d slipped into her purse. He waited until the victim was in an underpopulated area, then attacked and killed her.”

Maybe the best way to prevent that tragedy is to kill the AirTag instead.

How Apple can make AirTag less dangerous

But perhaps such a radical course isn’t necessary. AirTag has helped people thwart thieves. Apple could put limits on AirTag and Find My functionality that would make them less useful to scumbags, while retaining the helpful features.

Apple already tries to make AirTag less of a tool for criminals. If one is being used to surreptitiously follow a person, they get a warning from their iPhone within a few hours. And Apple is stepping up efforts to make hidden AirTags easier to find.

But it’s not enough. The Find My app presents the user with far more tracking information than is necessary to locate a misplaced item. I don’t need to see on a map the exact location of my car keys at any given second.

Currently, if I’ve misplaced an item with an AirTag attached, the Find My application lets me search for it in my area with my phone. If the device can’t locate it, I can put it into Lost Mode so that any Apple device will notify me where it is.

Here’s where change is needed: There needs to be limits on how often you can use Lost Mode. It should only be accessible a few times a day, or a few days a week, and not very many times a month.

Keep in mind, the whole purpose of AirTag is to help you find your keys, purse or whatever else you lost. For that, you don’t need to track your purse all day, every day.

Such limits won’t inconvenience regular users. If you lose your keys somewhere new every single day, there’s not much anyone can do to help you. But the changes should make AirTag much less useful to stalkers and other criminals.

And this is just a start. Apple should look at every single AirTag/Find My feature, consider how it could be misused, and decide whether it should stay or go.

How you can protect yourself

Until Apple makes AirTag less criminal-friendly, there are ways you can protect yourself. The New York attorney general makes solid recommendations.

For one, your iPhone will notify you if you’re being followed by an unknown AirTag. Heed the warning. You can even use the Find My application to disable the AirTag. Android users concerned about being tracked can download the free Tracker Detect app.

If there’s something beeping near you, be aware that it could be an AirTag. The trackers are supposed to start making noise after they’ve been separated from their users for a while. Unfortunately, you can’t count on this, because criminals already started disabling AirTag’s audible warning.

Don’t kill Find My for other items

Although AirTag, which Apple launched last April, is turning out to be a mixed blessing — one Apple should think hard about keeping in its product lineup — the tracking tags shouldn’t spell the end of the Find My network. That’s been around for years, helping people locate lost iPhones and other devices over and over. It’s helped people a lot.

Apple should actually build more more products with the short-range search capabilities of an AirTag. Every Apple TV remote should emit a wireless beacon so it’s easily findable with an iPhone. The same is true for Apple Pencil.

It’s only by building unnecessary capabilities into inexpensive AirTag trackers that Apple runs problems.