The rise and fall of AirTag stalking explained

From lost and found to lost privacy, we explore how Apple's AirTags became the weapon of choice for stalkers and abusers.

In 2021, Apple unveiled the AirTag, a tiny disc-shaped device designed to help people keep track of their belongings. What could go wrong? Fast-forward to 2024, and AirTags have become the weapon of choice of digital stalkers and abusers, with cases rocketing by 317%. But how did we get here?

Marketed as a simple and fun solution for locating lost items like keys or luggage through an iPhone's connection to the 'Find My' app, the AirTag sends a Bluetooth signal detectable by nearby devices. While this capability was championed as revolutionary for finding misplaced objects, it opened a Pandora's box of privacy concerns and quickly became a stalker's best friend.

Countless examples soon revealed the darker side of this technology that leads to domestic violence and stalking. A young woman in Chicago, for example, was murdered after removing a tracking device her ex-boyfriend had secretly placed on her vehicle.

In a similar vein, a man in Indianapolis fell victim to fatal violence by an ex-partner who had used an AirTag to track him. These cases are stark reminders of how technology intended for convenience and security can be weaponized against individuals instead, leading to catastrophic outcomes.

At Cybernews, we conducted a test to evaluate the AirTag stalking theory. Our goal was to determine whether these tiny devices could be used to track individuals covertly and effectively. Over two hours, our experiment demonstrated that following someone for an extended time without their knowledge is feasible. This revealing experiment raises significant concerns about the potential misuse of AirTags and underscores the need for awareness and preventive measures against such covert surveillance.

Some security features have improved since our experiment. However, security researchers quickly discovered how easily bypassing anti-stalking protection was. In 2024, tracking devices have become more innovative. There is also increasing concern about what happens when they are inevitably integrated with AI.

How to defend against Apple AirTag stalking

If your iPhone or iPad notifies you of an unknown AirTag or other Find My network device traveling with you, don't ignore it. These alerts are designed to protect your privacy and safety. Immediately check the 'Find My' app; it will show the last known locations where the device was in proximity to you.

Downloading the Tracker Detect app will allow Android users to scan for nearby AirTags or accessories. If you find a device such as an AirTag, use your iPhone or an NFC-capable Android phone to tap it and gather information about its owner. This data can be crucial if you need to report the situation to authorities later.

Document the device's information, such as serial numbers or owner details. If you determine the tracking is malicious, turn off the device following the on-screen instructions from the Find My app to stop further location sharing.

Finally, if you believe your safety is compromised, contact local law enforcement for assistance, providing them with all the information and evidence you've collected. Taking these steps will protect you and help prevent such misuse.

It's also wise to be vigilant and aware of other technologies that can be misused for stalking. This includes seemingly benign tools like children's toys, car accessories, or everyday household items that could be equipped with tracking technology. Always remember that the law is increasingly recognizing the severity of digital stalking, and some legal protections and actions can be pursued if you find yourself a victim of such violations.

Apple and Google's collaborative approach to stopping digital stalkers

With a rise in lawsuits and links to abuse and murder, Apple and Google are collaborating to address the growing concerns around digital stalking.

The proposed industry specification, submitted by both companies, aims to create a unified standard that enables Bluetooth-enabled devices to detect unauthorized tracking and trigger alerts across both iOS and Android platforms.

This collaborative effort underscores the urgency of tackling the potential misuse of these technologies, which have transformed from simple item locators into tools capable of violating individual privacy.

By integrating these standards, Apple and Google have set a precedent for the tech industry to prioritize user safety and curb the nefarious use of tracking devices. This initiative is not just about technological advancement but also about responding to the legal challenges and societal implications posed by the misuse of these devices.

Stalkerware on trial: how class actions are shaping tech privacy laws

Although regulation and legislation have often been accused of lagging behind evolving technology, this is beginning to change. For example, Pennsylvania has recently taken a stance against tracking device misuse by voting overwhelmingly to make unauthorized tracking illegal. This decision categorizes the use of tracking devices to secretly monitor another person as a form of stalking, an act punishable by up to 90 days in jail.

In Northern California, Apple has also faced a class-action lawsuit over AirTags' alleged stalking capabilities. The court's decision to allow the lawsuit to proceed emphasizes that manufacturers must design products that minimize the risk of harm from digital stalking.

These two examples indicate a turning point in the battle between big tech, the legal system, and the need to protect individuals from stalkerware. But is it too little, too late?

Beyond AirTags: the extensive reach of stalkerware in modern tech

The controversy surrounding Apple's AirTags provides a timely reminder of the real-world impacts of the "move fast and break things" approach to innovation.

Initially launched to simplify the tracking of personal items, big tech seemed blindsided by the seemingly obvious darker potential of these devices as a tool for stalking. Once again, we have witnessed the unintended consequences of rapid technological advancement and the lack of foresight around the impacts of its creation.

However, it's crucial to recognize that the issue of stalkerware extends far beyond AirTags. Applications such as mSpy, Spyera, Flexispy, Umobix, Ikey Monitor, and Clevguard offer deeply invasive capabilities, from call and keystroke recording to remotely capturing screenshots, often disguised under the guise of safety or security. These tools can be embedded in everyday objects like children's toys and car accessories, transforming innocuous items into potential threats.

As technology continues to evolve, so must our vigilance and the legal frameworks governing these devices. We must ensure that innovation enhances our collective security and privacy, not compromises.