The Apple AirTag was all the rage when the tech company launched the tiny location tracking disc in 2021, but the once-praised device has turned into a cyberstalker's best friend. Will artificial intelligence only make it worse?
Earlier this week, a 21-year woman from Chicago was murdered, all because she removed a tracking device from her car, allegedly placed there by her former boyfriend.
I’m sure you guessed it, but yes, it was the ex-boyfriend that took her life, enraged that he was no longer able to keep tabs on the young woman.
Last summer, a similar case was reported of an Indianapolis man being killed by his ex-girlfriend after she tracked him down by placing the device in the back of his car.
Now, most view the small chips of plastic embedded with Bluetooth technology as a simple device used to locate lost keys (who doesn’t need that) or track missing luggage, but to victims of domestic violence and other types of emotional abuse, they are much more sinister.
The two cases above are obviously extreme outcomes, but cyberstalking is no joke. If a small tech device the size of a quarter can already be used as a successful stalking tool, what will happen when AI is thrown into the mix?
Advocates worry that AI will easily allow stalkers “to track and monitor their victims with greater ease and precision than ever before,” according to New York City-based victims' rights law firm C.A. Goldberg.
The law firm says the integration of AI-powered algorithms in tracking devices could also provide a stalker the ability to analyze and predict a person’s movements, locations, and even daily routines.
Moreover, given that most stalkers will harass their victims using multiple methods and resources, it could be combined with other technology, such as facial recognition and open-source intelligence (OSINT) data, to really crack open a victim’s digital footprint.
Is it real or am I being paranoid?
One woman (unnamed for privacy reasons) told Cybernews she had experienced this type of stalking while going through a divorce.
She had discovered her ex-partner had not only put a location tracking device in her car, but also spyware on her smartphone, and even hidden microphones in the home so he could listen to her private phone conversations.
Her ex-partner was non-physically violent, thank goodness, instead showing an emotionally abusive side of himself she had never seen before.
By definition, cyberstalking is the repeated use of electronic communications with the intent to intimidate and frighten a victim. In this women’s case, the ex-partner proudly flaunted his ability to track where she was and access her phone at will by leaving hints and driving his car past locations she was at, only adding to the not-so-subtle mind manipulation.
She eventually went to the police and filed a restraining order, which appeared to stop the harassment, but the women says the entire ordeal left her permanently scarred emotionally.
"It was a huge violation of privacy," she said. Not only that, but the woman said those feelings of paranoia, anxiousness, and always looking over a shoulder wondering if you're being secretly monitored, altogether become a part of her daily life.
“Tech abuse in any form is isolating and terrifying. But the pain and disruption experienced by victims can be overlooked or underplayed,” C.A. Goldberg states.
Two years later, even after the ex’s behavior has dramatically cooled off, she still finds herself checking around her car and home for hidden devices, always vigilantly wondering if the covert surveillance has truly ended.
At one point, in a new living situation, the woman said she would regularly put clear tape across the doorways to make sure no one had entered the home when she left the premises.
The amount of anxiety it has caused her will probably never fully go away, she said.
Safety features fall short
What’s unnerving is that the non-descript AirTag, even without any artificial intelligence integration, has officially earned its place among law enforcement as a known, commonly used stalking tool, though it's only been on the consumer market for mere two years.
In fairness, Apple has added some solid safety and privacy features designed to help a person become aware if they are being tracked by the $29 AirTag, but in reality, those features will never stop the initial placement of a device to begin with.
What's more, the last updates to the Airtag product were made back in February 2022, more than a year and a half ago.
The added privacy and built-in safety features included end-to-end encryption and randomized Bluetooth identifiers to help block unauthorized location snooping. The tech giant also collaborated with Android to make Apple's "Find My" network app accessible to third-party users.
Another added anti-stalking measure will alert users if an unknown AirTag is found moving with them for an extended period. This feature is designed to prevent unauthorized tracking, and if detected, the hidden AirTag will play a sound to draw attention to it.
With news stories and social media posts depicting endless situations where the AirTag is being used for nefarious purposes, most would say Apple's attempt to prevent the device from becoming a stalker's dream has failed miserably.
The problem is all these safety precautions, although well-meaning, are all defensive measures and not pre-emptive. If you are unlucky enough to find a tracking device tucked away in your car or belongings, sadly, your privacy has already been violated.
Unless you know who placed the tag, you can’t do much about it, still leaving victims powerless.
If you suspect that someone is using AirTags or any other tracking technology to stalk or monitor you without consent, it's crucial to report the situation to the appropriate authorities and seek help to ensure your safety.
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