LOST AND FOUND: Apple lets you track your missing stuff with AirTags

Apple has some safeguards in place but unwanted tracking is a potential concern

Raise your hand if you seem to misplace your things, like car keys or wallet, er, on a regular basis.

You’re not alone.

While rumours have floated around since 2019, Apple has just released its AirTags, tiny trackers designed to help iPhone owners locate lost stuff.

Attach it to a keychain, TV remote, purse, backpack, or luggage tag, and you can locate it within Apple’s Find My app.

“It’s a fact of life: We lose our stuff,” says Michelle Warren, a Toronto-based technology analyst. “While there have been similar solutions around for a while, from the likes of Tile and Samsung, this is Apple’s solution to the common issue — and they’re fortunate because users are very tied to the brand, and the price is competitive.”

Apple’s Junior Mint-sized doohickeys — $39 apiece or a pack of four for $129 — offer several advantages (and a couple shortcomings) compared to the competition.

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Plus, while Apple is usually a strong advocate for your privacy — now giving you the option to turn off ad tracking within the apps you use, for example — there are concerns surrounding those who might exploit AirTags as a stalking tool.

First, the good news.

How it works, benefits

Apple’s AirTags broadcast a Bluetooth signal to help locate lost items.

When the tracker is in range of your iPhone, around nine metres (30 feet), you can quickly locate the tracker on a small map inside the Find My app, plus it emits a sound when you tap to find it. You can also ask Siri to find your missing item, and AirTag will play a sound if nearby.

AirTags detected on an Apple iPhone.
AirTags detected on an Apple iPhone. Photo by Handout /Apple

Unlike Tile (from $29) and Samsung Galaxy SmartTag (from $27), AirTags also use ultra-wideband technology to more precisely lead you to their location. If you’re on an iPhone with a U1 chip (iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 family), you’ll see a directional arrow that points you directly to an AirTag’s location (and how far away it is, in real time). Your location data and history are never stored on the AirTag itself, says Apple.

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Now here’s where AirTags really get interesting: If you left your backpack, say, at a friend’s house — therefore out of Bluetooth range — the Find My network may help track it down. By leveraging roughly one billion Apple devices around the globe, it can detect Bluetooth signals from an AirTag and relay the location back to you.

Plus, you can place AirTag into Lost Mode in the Find My app, and be notified when it has been located. If someone finds your stuff, they can tap it using their iPhone (or any NFC-capable device) and be taken to a website that will display how to reach you (provided you set it up with, say, a phone number).

Find My network can help detect AirTags out of Bluetooth range.
Find My network can help detect AirTags out of Bluetooth range. Photo by Handout /Apple

Other advantages to AirTags includes simple setup — just place it close to your iPhone to be recognized, and then give it a name, like “Marc’s Keys” or “Kellie’s Purse” — plus AirTags have a user-replaceable battery that lasts about a year.

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Downsides, concerns

While you can personalize AirTags with free engraving, including text and an emoji, there is no way to affix the device to your stuff. Tile and Samsung’s trackers, by comparison, have a hole in the corner of its square-shaped trackers to attach it to something.

Therefore, you might need to buy an AirTag accessories (sigh), such as a Polyurethane or Leather Loop, which bumps up the cost of the investment. There’s even an AirTag Hermes line of handcrafted leather accessories.

Also, you need an iPhone to use AirTags, unlike Tile and other trackers, that also work on Android devices.

An Apple AirTags Hermes accessory.
An Apple AirTags Hermes accessory. Photo by Handout /Apple

A bigger issue, however, may be unwanted tracking.

While Apple has made it clear AirTags are for tracking things — not people — it could be misused by some. For example, someone could slip an AirTag into their husband’s car or wife’s purse, and then track their whereabouts.

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Apple has put some safeguards in place — an AirTag will sound an alert if it’s been separated from its paired iPhone, plus iPhone users will get on-screen notifications if someone else’s AirTag is accompanying them — but there are a couple big caveats here.

An AirTag will sound an alert if it’s not with its owner, sure, but it takes up to three days for that to happen. Plus, the volume is somewhat low.

“It’s the size of a quarter and emits a sound like a washing machine chime,” cautions Warren, referring to the AirTag’s 60-decibel limit. “The sound is too low compared to other trackers, like those from Samsung.

“That, and three days is a very long time,” adds Warren. “I’d be concerned.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/uIxFGbvErxQ?embed_config={%27relatedChannels%27:%20[],%27autonav%27:true}&autoplay=0&playsinline=1&enablejsapi=1

Also, an onscreen notification about an AirTag not assigned to you is only seen if the user is using an iPhone with iOS 14.5 installed, once they arrive home — therefore users with older iPhone (prior to iPhone 6s) and Android owners won’t be notified in this way. Same goes if you have no smartphone at all, of course.

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Therefore, even if someone doesn’t have a compatible iPhone, if a nearby AirTag comes in contact with someone who does (remember, Bluetooth range is about nine metres), it could ping the AirTag owner with location information.

“In other words, Apple’s peer-to-peer approach, which is one of (AirTags’) strengths, is also one of its weaknesses,” summarizes Warren.

Some reports, from tech publications like Mashable, Wired and Gizmodo, found even those running a new iPhone, with iOS 14.5 installed, may not get any alerts at all (when tested, with consent).

When asked about the misuse of AirTags by stalkers, Apple Canada provided a statement:

“We take customer safety very seriously and are committed to AirTag’s privacy and security. AirTag is designed with a set of proactive features to discourage unwanted tracking — a first in the industry– and the Find My network includes a smart, tunable system with deterrents that applies to AirTag, as well as third-party products part of the Find My network accessory program. We are raising the bar on privacy for our users and the industry, and hope others will follow.”

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The “tunable” system refers to the fact AirTag’s privacy warnings could be updated remotely by Apple, if desired, as it’s not coded into the hardware itself. Apple, for example, may change the audible notification from three days to one day.

“Apple is aware of unwanted tracking, as they’ve talked about it, and so I hope they tighten up some of these settings,” says Warren.

If someone detects an unknown AirTag, they can tap it with their iPhone (or another NFC-capable device) and follow instructions to disable it. Or you can simply remove the battery.

While it’s not likely, Apple should also create an app for Android — the largest install base of any operating system in the world — to alert those users of nearby AirTags, too.

All Rights Reserved for Marc Saltzman

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