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Apple AirTags "terrifyingly good" at tracking stuff — and potentially helping stalkers

Apple AirTags raise safety concerns
Apple AirTags raise safety concerns 06:34

Apple's AirTag technology, the company's new device for helping people find lost items, could also let stalkers keep tabs on their victims, experts warn.

The small, round tag is impressively precise and relatively easy to use — and potentially misuse. Experts say the gadget could facilitate stalking and enable domestic abusers. Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler tested the tags, which can be attached to a keychain, iPhone or other device, or simply placed in an individual's purse or wallet. The trackers connect to the AirTag owner's iPhone to share their location.

"That's super handy if you maybe lose keys in the park and you need to find them again," Fowler told CBSN's Lana Zak. "But the problem is someone could slip one of these into your bag, or into your car or some other belonging of yours, without you knowing it."

"Terrifyingly good" at tracking

AirTags can be set up to sent alerts to prevent unwanted tracking. For instance, when an AirTag is separated from its owner's iPhone for more than three days, it will chime. But critics say this and other built-in safeguards aren't sufficient to protect potential victims from stalking.

Fowler said a colleague slipped an AirTag into Fowler's bag with his permission and tracked him for one week.

"It was terrifyingly good at it," Fowler told CBSN. "When I was riding my bike around town, it could update him on my whereabouts every couple of minutes."

The device even revealed Fowler's home address to his colleague, sparking privacy concerns. "So it's a double-edged sword with this kind of technology, and I think we need to talk more about it," Fowler said.

"Massive new surveillance network"

Similar Bluetooth-based tracking devices are already on the market, including a product from tech company Tile. But Apple's device can reach many more individuals, given the tech company's already broad reach. 

"I think the reason why ... people like me are raising the alarm about AirTags is because when Apple gets involved, we're talking about a whole other scale," Fowler said. "These tap into literally every iPhone out there — a billion different devices. And that means, suddenly, Apple has created a massive new surveillance network that's available to people."

And at just $30 a pop, they are relatively inexpensive and easy to use.

"So it is unfortunately a really effective technology for potentially using to stalk," Fowler said. 

Apple rolls out major privacy protections 02:17

Another protection built into the AirTag's design is the "AirTag Found Moving With You" alert. An AirTag placed near an unpaired iPhone will trigger an "AirTag Detected" message on that individual's phone, informing them that a tag has been traveling around with them.

Fowler said he received one such alert, but it didn't help him find the AirTag that was tracking him. It also doesn't work with Android phones or any Apple device that isn't running iOS 14.5 or later.

"Frankly, Apple needs to do more," he said.

An industrywide effort is necessary to implement protections around tracking devices, Fowler said.

"I can see the appeal but it's important to be thinking of these security concerns from a much broader societal perspective," he said.

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