Apple AirTags are a gift for stalkers

When Apple first unveiled the iPod, Steve Jobs promised to put “a thousand songs in your pocket”. Twenty years later, when Apple unveiled its latest device, AirTags, it promised to put a global tracking network in your pocket, purse, or anywhere the small device can be hidden. AirTags are a Bluetooth enabled return beacon about the size of a quarter. They are marketed as a great way to track lost luggage or keys, but they can become the last way for abusers to track down survivors of domestic violence.

Yes, stalker already exists on phones and compromised accounts can reveal your location. But there are also known defenses against these threats, whether it’s two-factor authentication, anti-virus software for phones, or even Apple. guide to secure your accounts and settings when your security is at risk.

The threat of AirTags is different. AirTags are easy to hide in a target’s bag or car, making it easy for an attacker to track their position. This is similar to the threat posed by other trackers like Tile, but on a much larger scale. The tiles are roughly the same weight and size as AirTags, with one key difference: the sheer size of the array. When a Tile is lost or stolen, it tries to communicate with nearby Tile users, using their cell phone or Wi-Fi connection to communicate with the owner. You can go all day without being within Bluetooth range (around 30 feet) of a Tile user, but try to get through the day without getting within 30 feet of an iPhone or iPad. Tile measures its users by the tens of thousands. Apple has over a billion of them.

Apple has conscripted nearly all iOS devices into its global tracking network by default. If you want to unsubscribe, you have to navigate a maze of menu options that will prove to be completely inaccessible to everyone except the most technically competent. Apple offers the illusion of choice, of consent, but nothing more.

For people who use an iPhone, Apple has provided new software alerts to notify them of possible stalking. Although the feature is quite inaccessible, users can have some peace of mind by going to the settings menu and looking for unknown AirTags if they suspect they are being spied on. But if the survivor doesn’t have a phone or has an Android device, they’re out of luck. Only after being separated from its owner for 72 hours will the AirTag alert people with a 60 decibel tone, about the same volume as a dishwasher or casual conversation. The easily muffled or bypassed beep will only trigger if the AirTag has been out of range of the phone it’s paired to for three consecutive days, meaning abusers who live with survivors (which is quite common) can frequently reset the clock.

Even when abusers aren’t living with survivors, that’s still three days free of stalking, followed by a warning sound that can easily be missed and is unnecessary for the hearing impaired. Apple’s failure to take the safety of people who live outside the Apple ecosystem seriously is inexcusable. It’s not enough for Apple to just protect iOS users. The billions of Android users also deserve to be protected from harassment. The most important step Apple should take is to create an Android app that alerts users to nearby trackers. You shouldn’t have to own an Apple device to know if you are safe from Apple products. Additionally, those of us with Apple devices shouldn’t be added to the tracking network without consent. Apple should only add users who agree. There is a long and painful history of stalkers and attackers co-opting seemingly harmless technologies. The tracking services built into many family cell phone plans have been used so frequently by abusers that Congress is go ahead with legislation to mitigate the threat.

Apple needs to take domestic violence and harassment seriously. More than 10 million Americans have likely been victims of stalking in their lifetime, and more than a million face this threat each year. The rates of intimate partner violence are even more striking, with more than a quarter of women and 10% of men report abuse. These are not outliers, it is an epidemic of violence affecting almost every corner of our globe. When Apple fails to protect the survivors, the consequences can be fatal. Apple executives need to put abuse survivors and experts at the center of its development process, incorporating their feedback from the start. Otherwise, the company will continue to make products that endanger people more than they help them.

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