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Home Tech How the Apple AirTag became a gift to stalkers

How the Apple AirTag became a gift to stalkers

Photo by Wijdan Mq on Unsplash

They emptied the glove compartment, opened the bonnet, checked underneath it and then behind the number plate. “Eventually we found it under the carpet in the back – a tiny gadget the size of a 10-pence piece. I didn’t want it anywhere near me.”

To Laura, it was obvious how it got there. She had recently separated from her partner, but he had spent the previous day with their young son – and had transferred his child seat from his car to the back seat of Laura’s when he had dropped him back.

The AirTag was launched in April last year – a wireless, Bluetooth device designed to keep track of items such as keys, purses, cars or anything else at risk of being lost or stolen. But it has also been a gift to stalkers. “We’re finding it’s quite an issue,” says Violet Alvarez from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which supports stalking victims. “It’s so small, it’s unnoticeable and very user-friendly. It doesn’t require any technical skill whatsoever and it is relatively cheap to buy [from £29].”

AirTags are also widely available. While a mind-boggling range of spyware is available on eBay or Amazon, the Apple brand is ubiquitous, part of everyday life. “I saw AirTags for sale in my local supermarket,” says Emma Pickering, senior operations manager for tech abuse at the domestic abuse charity Refuge. “People see them, think about tracking more, and the concept of tracking becomes more established. We’re normalising it.”

Both Refuge and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust have been contacted by women like Laura, who have received AirTag notifications on their phones. Some went on to find the devices planted in children’s backpacks by ex-partners. Others had been slipped into the women’s pockets or handbags. In one case, the AirTag couldn’t be located at all. The Refuge team talked the caller through how to disable it, but she still doesn’t know where it is hidden.

This month at Swansea crown court, Christopher Paul Trotman, 41, pleaded guilty to stalking his ex-girlfriend by gluing an AirTag under her car bumper. Although she had received notifications about the device on her phone, she had no idea what they meant and initially ignored them. It was only when her daughter also began getting notifications that the tag was found.

In most cases seen by Refuge and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, the victims have a clear idea of who planted the device – usually current or former partners – but this is not always the case.

In June, the Irish actor Hannah Rose May tweeted a warning after an AirTag was planted on her person during an after-hours event at Disneyland, California. She was in the car park at 2am, about to drive home, when she received a notification that someone had been tracking her for two hours. Sports Illustrated model Brook Nader shared a similar experience on Instagram. Someone slipped an AirTag into her coat pocket when she was in a New York restaurant. Four hours later, in what she described as “the scariest moment ever”, Nader was walking home alone when she received a notification that she was being tracked.

Apple has stressed that the company takes the issue of stalking very seriously, which is why it designed the alert system that appears on your iPhone if an AirTag not registered to you is seen moving with you over time. It adds that it works with police when there have been incidents, and stresses that misuse of AirTags is rare.

That alert system only works if the stalking victim has an iPhone, however. So in December 2021, eight months after AirTags were launched, Apple released Tracker Detect, an app that will alert you on an Android device – so long as you’re sufficiently informed and far-sighted to install the app and keep it active.

The AirTag also emits a warning chime after a while to alert anyone close by of its presence. Initially the chime sounded after three days, but subsequently this was shortened to a random time between eight and 24 hours. Apple has been working to make the chime louder – it can be especially difficult to hear on a busy street or when hidden under a car – and to make the AirTag easier to find after you have received an alert.

To Rory Innes, founder of the Cyber Helpline, these safety updates serve to illustrate the problem. “The approach is: ‘Launch it, get it into the world, get it to market, monetise it and we can solve problems later,’” he says. “That doesn’t happen in any other industry. You don’t launch a car and fix the seatbelts months down the line – and that’s because there are strict laws and regulations, safety standards and testing. That just doesn’t exist in tech – and it’s a real gap.

“All these features need to be designed into the product pre-release,” he says. “I’ve sat in rooms with social media companies and software developers and their security concerns are always around hackers and encryption. They focus on protecting company servers and databases or protecting consumers from cyber-viruses. But what about when the threat is from someone inside the house? There’s a total lack of understanding when it comes to domestic abuse and stalking, and how individuals become victims.”

Another issue is the lack of support when it happens. “If you find an AirTag under your car or you get a notification, it’s impossible to speak to anyone at Apple,” says Innes. “At that point, speed is important. You need expert advice very quickly.”

There are complex risk assessments to be made, depending on where you are and who you think the perpetrator might be. A study of female homicides as a result of male violence found stalking behaviour in 94% of cases and surveillance activity in 63%. Disabling access on an AirTag notifies the stalker that you know what they are doing. A stalker who is losing control might escalate their behaviour. Some women might be tempted to confront someone they suspect of planting the device. Any reaction has potential dangers attached, warns Innes: “Apple just don’t offer enough support, and that is about profit.”

Apple declined an interview, but did point out that the company has a 24-hour support line. It added that the AirTag support website advises anyone who feels they might be at risk to go to a public location and contact the authorities, who can work with Apple to request information related to the item.

The UK government’s online safety bill (currently at the report stage in the House of Commons) offers little help here. “There’s a lot of focus on removing harmful content, which is a lot better than nothing, but what it doesn’t cover in any way is the design of products and the support offered when they are used maliciously,” says Innes.

He advises victims to contact the police – every AirTag has a unique serial number that should identify the purchaser through their Apple ID – though the Suzy Lamplugh Trust has heard of cases of the police failing to take this issue seriously enough.

Laura had never seen her partner as abusive during their relationship, but when they separated, his tech-abuse went beyond an AirTag. “I’m a dinosaur; he loved fancy new gadgets, and when we were together, he bought the technology,” she says. “He set up her computer passwords, she says, and when they separated he locked her out of her machine. “I was actually in the car on the way to getting it fixed when I got the AirTag alert.

“He also put some kind of tag on my keys – he said it was so we wouldn’t lose them – but it meant he knew where I was at all times. He had security cameras on the house, which he viewed on his phone. One night after we had separated, I got in at 11.30 at night, and as I was walking upstairs, loud music started blaring out of the boombox. He had watched me come in on his phone and activated the sound system remotely. I was running around the house unplugging everything. By then I didn’t want to stay at home any more. I felt like I was going crazy.”

Laura now has a stalking protection order for five years. Though her ex was originally charged with stalking, this was later downgraded to a public order offence. He claimed that the AirTag must have fallen out his pocket and it was impossible to prove otherwise. Laura says she is still processing it all. “On a bad day, I get this feeling of panic, I have to switch my phone off and do nothing,” she says. “The stuff he has done is so unbelievable – it’s not normal behaviour and yet he seemed such a normal person. That’s what puts me on edge.”

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