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Apple sued over 'stalking' AirTags

Apple's AirTags can be a great boon: the tiny Bluetooth trackers have saved a disorganized driver or gadget owner from disaster by revealing the location of keys, phones, or luggage. But although the US lawsuit is unlikely to succeed, it highlights a growing problem.

However, two American women say the devices have led to them being stalked and harassed, and have launched a class-action lawsuit against Apple. The company has failed to protect their privacy by geolocating them, they say, and carried out fraudulent marketing claiming the products are safe.

One woman, Lauren Hughes, says that after ending a three-month relationship with a man, he began stalking her online, and she later found an AirTag in the wheel well of her car. Later, when she moved to a new apartment, her ex posted a picture of a taco truck nearby with the hashtag #airt2.0.

Meanwhile, a second woman says her estranged husband was also able to find her location after hiding one of the devices in their child's backpack.

Lawsuit cites "negligence"

Their lawsuit calls for unspecified damages for US owners of iOS or Android-based devices who have been tracked by AirTags ⁠— and even for those who are 'at risk' of being stalked through Apple's alleged negligence. It also calls for Apple to erase all the plaintiffs' location data and stop tracking them in the future.

"With a price point of just $29, [the AirTag] has become the weapon of choice of stalkers and abusers," the lawsuit reads.

What's surprising is that it has taken so long.

The problem is that AirTags either work or don't. To perform the function they're marketed for, they need to accurately track the item they're attached to and report its whereabouts. That's basic functionality and non-negotiable if the devices are to be of any use at all.

There is, though, no easy way to ensure that they're only attached to legitimate targets.

AirTags were first launched in April last year ⁠— and by the end of the year, there were already hundreds of reports that the devices were being used for stalking.

Apple, indeed, acknowledged the problem, admitting in February this year that it had 'seen reports of bad actors attempting to misuse AirTag for malicious or criminal purposes'. It made minor changes, such as increasing the volume of the alert and introducing an Android app to alert those being tracked.

The company also promised a 'series of updates' by the end of this year to help prevent unauthorized tracking: 'precision finding' to allow iPhone 11, iPhone 12, and iPhone 13 users to locate unwanted trackers; a display alert, such as a text message, alongside the sound; and earlier notification that a person may be being tracked. However, so far these improvements haven't materialized, with victims sometimes being tracked for days before receiving an alert.

Why it matters

AirTags, of course, are by no means the only location trackers on the market, with similar tags available from Tile, Eufy, and others. There's also a plethora of GPS tracking devices that are aimed far more squarely at stalkers.

However, AirTags do represent a unique risk. The scale of Apple's network, experts say, makes it easier to pinpoint a victim's position much more accurately.

"The network that Apple has access to is larger and more powerful than that used by the other trackers. It’s more powerful for tracking and more dangerous for stalking," comments Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director of cybersecurity, Eva Galperin.

Meanwhile, the ubiquity of Apple products and the company's general reputation for preserving privacy mean that the general public may not be as alert to the risks as they should be.

It's unlikely that the lawsuit will succeed - quite apart from the other issues, Apple's vast resources are likely to make sure of that.

However, as the case progresses and concludes, it's likely that the public will become more aware of the risk that they may be being stalked, and Apple may be forced to significantly improve the alerts that it provides. That would be a good result.

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