Apple to update AirTags to help prevent tracking of people

Apple AirTag

Todd Haselton | Apple

Apple announced several changes on Thursday to the way its AirTag product works as the $ 29 quarter-sized tracker is being linked to suspected crimes, including stalking and car theft.

Apple will update the iPhone and AirTag software to show a message during setup that using AirTags to track people is a crime in many regions around the world, and that law enforcement can request its associated user information, it said on Thursday. Apple will also introduce a feature it calls Precision Finding which will point iPhone users to unknown AirTags when they’re nearby.

The changes announced on Thursday are the most significant attempts Apple has made to limit the privacy and stalking downside of the product since it first went on sale last April.

Apple said on Thursday that it is working with law enforcement to provide serial number and Apple ID information in response to subpoenas related to AirTag crimes. It also said it has been able to work with law enforcement in some cases to find suspects who were subsequently arrested and charged.

Apple markets AirTags as a lost item finder useful for attaching to items like your keys, wallet and backpack. The product uses Bluetooth signals and a “vast, global” network of other people’s iPhones to calculate where an AirTag is and display it on a map in the user’s Find My app. Because iPhones are common in urban areas, an AirTag can effectively pinpoint its location to a small area.

AirTags do not use GPS, and Apple uses advanced encryption to make AirTags “private and secure” by ensuring anonymity for iPhones in the Find My network.

But after they were released, AirTags started showing up in alleged crimes. Thieves could place one in a car and find out where it drove to next in their Find My app to find the ideal location for a robbery, police alleged. Alleged victims also reported on social media that AirTags were slipped into women’s pockets at bars or clubs in an example of stalking.

Police in Colorado, Georgia, Michigan and Texas have previously reported the misuse of AirTags, NBC News.

Apple said on Thursday that incidents of AirTag misuse are “rare” and that it built tools into iPhones to alert users of unwanted tracking. Lost item trackers, like those made by Tile, existed before Apple released AirTag.

“AirTag was designed to help people locate their personal belongings, not to track people or another person’s property, and we condemn in the strongest possible terms any malicious use of our products,” Apple said. “Unwanted tracking has long been a societal problem, and we took this concern seriously in the design of AirTag.”

In December, Apple launched an Android app for AirTags called Tracker Detect, which looks for unknown AirTags (like one placed by a criminal) within the Bluetooth range. iPhones with recent software automatically detect AirTags that aren’t with their owner and play a sound. Apple said on Thursday that it would make the AirTag’s sound louder, and will show a popup to nearby users when there’s another person’s AirTag nearby. Users can disable AirTags they find by taking the cover off and removing the battery.

Apple previously said that only the owner of an AirTag can see where it is. This will slightly change in a future software update. A new feature called Precision Finding allows people with recent iPhones to precisely locate unknown AirTags through “a combination of sound, haptics, and visual feedback.”

Apple has not released sales figures for AirTags, but its $ 29 price tag means that it is unlikely to be a big driver of sales for the company. However, it is strategic for Apple: Features like Find My make iPhone users more likely to upgrade to another iPhone.

Apple marketing has focused on privacy and security as a major reason to buy its products, and the reports of stalking and crimes using AirTags is forcing the technology giant to walk a fine line between offering a useful lost item finder and the downside of making location tracking available to anyone with an iPhone and a $ 29 tracker.

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