Last Saturday, as my roommates were getting ready for their evenings out, I was curled up in bed, casting YouTube videos to my TV, and mindlessly eating through a bag of cheddar and sour cream Ruffles in attempt to distract myself from horrible period cramps. But, thrilling as that all sounds, that wasn’t to be my night’s main entertainment. No. The minute I heard the apartment door slam shut, I reached for my iPhone, opened the Find My app, and started tracking my roomies’ weekend shenanigans around Manhattan. (It’s okay — they were in on it.)
Thanks to AirTags, Apple’s new $29 Bluetooth trackers, I had everything I needed to know about their whereabouts right on my iPhone’s screen.
But, I can assure you, they are not.
Seamless connectivity • Up to a year’s worth of battery life • Easy to use
AirTags can be tracked out of bluetooth range • Safety features only work with iOS 14.5 • Takes three days for Android users to receive an unknown AirTag alert.
AirTags are easy to use and effective, but their extensive location tracking and ability to go beyond Bluetooth range is also what makes them dangerous for the rest of us.
AirTags work by leveraging Apple’s insanely extensive Find My network — its crowdsourced app that allows iOS users to find missing devices — comprised of “hundreds of millions of Apple devices” to keep users constantly updated on a tracker’s exact location. Sure, that sounds ideal when you’re trying to find a lost accessory, but it’s scary when you think about the malicious way they can be used — like stalking people.
Even though Apple loves to emphasize the privacy features specific to its new AirTags, there are plenty of loopholes around them. In fact, these little Bluetooth trackers are far more anxiety-inducing then they appear.
Yes, AirTags work super well
In case you’re unfamiliar with these little, white plastic discs, they work much the same way as other Bluetooth trackers from the likes of Tile, Chipolo, and Orbit. The concept behind them is simple: By emitting Bluetooth identifiers, other devices around them can identify and notify owners of their location. In this case, AirTags rely on Apple products and its Find My network.
There are two caveats, though:
AirTags only pair with the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, so Android users are out of luck.
If you don’t want to carry one in your backpack, purse, or luggage, you’ll have to drop extra money on a key ring or loop, all of which ranges from $29 to $449 (for the bougie Hermès options).
I’ll give it to Apple though, the initial AirTags pairing experience is seamless out of the box.
To get started, first make sure you have Bluetooth enabled on your iPhone. Then, hold the AirTag next to your phone and it should immediately recognize it. From there, your device will prompt you to specify what object (or person!) you’re attaching the tracker to (e.g., backpacks, bikes, a wallet, keys, luggage, a roommate, etc.), register it to your Apple ID, and connect it to your Find My app where it lives under the Items tab. Then, whenever you open that tab, the AirTag’s status will update to show you its current location.
When you tap your iPhone on a specific AirTag, you’ll have the following options:
Play Sound: This triggers a sound if the AirTag is lost and nearby.
Access directions: Using Apple Maps, you can pull up directions to locate the AirTag.
Toggle on notifications: Use this to receive notifications on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch whenever your AirTag is found.
Enable Lost Mode: When the AirTag is out of range, an alert is sent out to the Bluetooth tracker so that other iPhone users nearby can detect it and notify you. You’ll have to register your phone number during the set-up process though, so that whoever finds it can contact you directly by tapping on the AirTag and following instructions (this feature works with any iPhone and Android device with NFC built in). The AirTag also locks to your Apple ID, which prevents anyone from stealing it and connecting it to their own iPhone instead of returning it.
Precision Finding: This leverages the AirTag’s built-in U1 chip and accelerometer, coupled with ARKit and the iPhone’s gyroscope (iPhone 11 and 12 only), to physically guide you towards the AirTag using sound, haptic feedback, and graphics. But it only works when you’re in range of the tracker.
As for battery life, the AirTags run on a coin cell battery that lasts up to a year. So you won’t have to worry much about charging them.
And that’s all there really is to it. Yes, AirTags work and they work well — as any product should. But these things also work a little too well.
Let’s talk about those “Privacy features”
As with any Bluetooth tracker, privacy is always an issue — and Apple knows this. So the company put a bunch of corresponding protective measures in place:
notifications for unknown AirTags
the ability to disable unknown AirTags
a sound alert that goes off “over time”
Let’s break down what each of these mean:
Notifications for unwanted AirTags
If someone drops one of these into your bag or slips it into your jacket pocket without you noticing, you’ll receive a “Safety Alert” on your iPhone that says “Your current location can be seen by the owner of this AirTag.”
However, you won’t receive this notification right away. In fact, Apple doesn’t specify how long it takes to receive this safety alert, other than a vague “over time.” You’ll also receive a safety alert when you get home — which Apple determines based on prior travel patterns stored locally on your iPhone — in case someone has followed you there. If you’re not headed home, then it will notify you at the end of the day.
The Find My app also keeps a record of unknown items that have been detected near you. When you tap on an unknown AirTag alert, you can also see an exact route of where it has tracked you.
But here’s the thing: You’ll only receive an alert if you have an iPhone running iOS 14.5. And if you don’t … well, just keep reading.
If you don’t have an iPhone with iOS 14.5 or you have an Android phone, then you’ll have to wait for the unwanted AirTag to emit a sound — that takes about three days. Yes, you read that correctly: Three. Whole. Days.
Why does Apple feel like three days is the sweet spot? This can be attributed to “innocent use cases” like borrowing a friend’s backpack for a few days and not knowing there’s an AirTag in it. (Because that’s so relatable!)
But what about those not-so-innocent use cases like a stalker or abusive partner who uses the AirTag to track your every move? I guess you’ll have to wait three days to find out.
Disable the unknown AirTag
If you find an unwanted AirTag, you don’t have to wait until you receive an alert to disable it. You can simply do so by removing the battery.
Using AirTags to track my roommates
While these privacy features sound great on paper, I still had one question: What exactly does the AirTag owner see on their Find My app if they sneak one of these into someone’s purse or jacket?
To find out, I gave one AirTag to each of my roommates for testing — we’ll call them “L” and “M” — knowing that from Thursday night on, they’d be out on the town and way out of my phone’s Bluetooth range.
On Thursday night, the first night of my experiment, I was able to track L as they walked from Central Park West to Harlem. Two nights later, I monitored M as they hung out at a bar in Greenwich Village for a majority of the evening. Meanwhile, L spent that evening at their boyfriend’s AirBnB Uptown.
To double-check the AirTags’ location accuracy, I would occasionally text both of them throughout the night and ask if they were at the location the Find My app specified. As you can tell by the screenshots of our conversations below, both of them were very freaked out.
As for me, I was splitting my time traveling between Manhattan and Brooklyn that weekend, and watching all of this unfold on my iPhone’s Find My app.
To test the tracking distance even further, we put a lone AirTag in the drawer of L’s nightstand before they placed it on a moving truck headed for a new apartment across the country. As of 6:20 a.m. Thursday morning, that moving truck was stationed in Newark, NJ.
Now, I know what you’re probably wondering: Do either of my two roommates have iOS 14.5 installed to receive safety alerts?
At first, they didn’t but that’s because the software update hadn’t been released the weekend we first tested them. But it’s out now and we did test my AirTags-enabled stalking powers again with the update.
Now, if you’re wondering what Apple meant when it said safety alerts from unwanted AirTags would appear onscreen “over time,” the answer to that would be: two hours. That’s how long it took for my roommate to receive a safety alert once they left the apartment. But rather than disable the AirTag, they cleared the notification to see what would happen. The notification then appeared every few hours or so, and stopped for a bit before popping up again.
As for that sound it’s supposed to play after three days — well, it’s been almost a week since I gave my roommates the AirTags and they still haven’t made a peep. But that’s likely because I have yet to be away from either of them for the three full days needed.
In the interest of fairness, I also tried to track my roommates using the Tile Pro, which has a Bluetooth range of 400 feet. And, well, I think the below result speaks for itself.
Tile also has a global network feature, similar to Apple’s “Lost Mode,” so if you’ve misplaced your accessory, it’ll ping others near it with a Tile app installed and you’ll receive a notification about its whereabouts. But it’s much safer because it doesn’t allow you to track beyond the 400-foot range.
There’s no way around it: AirTags are dangerous
AirTags are a prime example of how a high active user base can work against you. Apple is fast approaching one billion active iPhone devices, making it the largest finder network in the world. That’s not something to brag about when you’re releasing Bluetooth trackers that can also be used to track people.
Remember what I said about those Bluetooth identifiers? It’s no wonder I was able to track my roommates so easily. The AirTag had the help of a bunch of iPhones around it to constantly refresh its location.
You might think I’m being dramatic when I call AirTags dangerous, but Apple’s so-called privacy features don’t take every scenario into account.
For starters, even though Apple says 90 percent of iPhone users have updated to iOS 14, that doesn’t necessarily mean each person will rush to update their iPhones to iOS 14.5. That means a whole lot of iOS users won’t receive safety alerts from unwanted AirTags. Considering that alert is part of iOS 14.5’s privacy feature set, it should be enforced by the company as a mandatory software update.
I asked five friends if they’ve updated yet and received a “No” from all of them. I also took a poll on Instagram to gauge the same, and out of 316 votes, 178 people indicated they hadn’t updated to iOS 14.5.
Even if you do have iOS 14.5 installed, I can’t help but think of all the ways someone might miss the onscreen safety alert. I mean, we’ve all had those nights where our phones die before we get home. It’s also possible someone could be a bit too inebriated to comprehend any type of onscreen notification — let alone an unfamiliar AirTag alert.
Or what if you have “trusted” access to someone’s phone? It’s easy to connect an AirTag to an object belonging to a significant other, slide it into their bag or place it in their car, and then dismiss and disable those safety alerts without them ever knowing.
There is one way Apple could have addressed this with AirTags, but didn’t: ongoing alerts when apps are accessing specific phone features. For some reason, the company didn’t feel the need to include this crucial privacy feature it applies to other apps like Snapchat, Instagram, and the iPhone camera app on iOS 14.
With ongoing alerts, if an app is using your camera, then a green dot appears at the top of the display. If an app is using your microphone, then an orange dot appears. It’d be nice if a similar feature could be applied to active AirTags.
Then there are those with Android devices whose only options are to either constantly check if there’s an AirTag physically planted on them or wait three days for an audible alert to go off. When I consider how much information a stalker could gather on someone marked with an AirTag in just an hour, let alone three days, my anxiety begins to spiral.
Apple needs to rethink its AirTags strategy
As a Bluetooth tracker, AirTags are extremely accurate in terms of location tracking, but that’s also their downfall. Safety alerts or not, I shouldn’t be able to track anyone or anything beyond Bluetooth range.
For a company that’s been boastful of its new App Tracking Transparency feature, which requires developers to list all the ways they’re collecting user data and give users the ability to opt out, it’s quite comical that Apple isn’t as transparent about its own tracking product.
The best part is that AirTags’ software isn’t hard-wired either. The safety notifications and the three-day grace period between sound alerts are all part of a tunable system that could be easily tweaked if Apple ever wanted to.
But it appears the company is convinced its AirTags will only be used for “good” activities, like tracking accessories. It also seems like Apple’s privacy features are geared more towards those who accidentally snag an AirTag when borrowing a friend’s bag or keys.
How ironic that a product that provides peace of mind by easing the fear of losing important accessories also increases the level of anxiety and paranoia when it comes to the safety and privacy of humans.