Apple offered key AirTag anti-stalking measures when it first launched its tracking devices, and has since offered two rounds of improvements. AirTags unequivocally offer better protection against misuse by stalkers and thieves than any other device on the market – and that’s something we’ve continually stressed.

However, it’s equally undeniable that AirTags have brought a whole new level of awareness to the very existence of small and affordable trackers, and that awareness has increased the risk. So I think it would be beneficial for Apple take additional anti-stalking measures – and here are a few of our ideas …

Background

It’s often said that internet commenters have difficulty with the concept that two different things can be simultaneously true.

It is absolutely true that AirTags are the best-protected and least-suitable trackers on the market for misuse by stalkers, thieves, and other criminals.

It is also absolutely true that a huge number of non-tech people who had never heard of GPS or Bluetooth trackers are now aware that they exist – and that includes stalkers.

Stalking is a serious problem

Some tend to be dismissive of stalking, as if it were a nuisance rather than a threat. This is not the case. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports some stark statistics:

  • 81% of women who were stalked by a current or former husband or cohabitating partner were also physically assaulted by that partner, while 31% were sexually assaulted.
  • 76% of women murdered by an intimate partner were stalked first, while 85% of women who survived murder attempts were stalked.
  • 54% of femicide victims reported stalking to the police before they were killed by their stalkers.

Even where violence does not follow, stalking can be enormously harmful. The majority of victims reported that their personality changed as a result, with a sizable number suffering PTSD – and 25% of victims considered suicide.

For all these reasons, if there are even more AirTag anti-stalking measures Apple could introduce to further protect privacy, it should do so. Guilherme Rambo and I came up with a few ideas.

1. Flag AirTags that spend too much time with the wrong person

AirTag has strong privacy protections. If your AirTag passes within range of my iPhone, neither of us will be aware of that fact. Even if you put your AirTag into Lost mode, the only way I will know who you are is if you choose to display a Lost message, which contains a method of contacting you – and you are in full control of which details you choose to share.

Apple, however, is in a different position. It has access to a lot of data that it keeps private. Among this data, it knows who has registered a particular AirTag, and it knows which iPhones are within range of each AirTag.

Using that data, it shouldn’t be too technically difficult to set up monitoring software to spot a pattern that would be indicative of stalking:

  1. The AirTag spends a significant amount of time out of range of the owner’s iPhone; and
  2. It spends a significant amount of time within range of a different iPhone.

Apple could then choose to proactively notify the potential victim, much as it does with owners of iPhones compromised by NSO’s Pegasus. Something like this:

This is a message from Apple. We have detected that an AirTag tracking device that doesn’t belong to you is often within range of your iPhone. If you have any reason to believe that you are being stalked, or have been targeted by thieves, please file a police report citing this reference: 9mBT93vVVc. Police will be able to contact Apple at airtagsafety@apple.com to obtain details of the AirTag owner. If you would like support with a stalking concern, here are organizations that can help.

2. Look for suspicious pairings of Apple IDs and AirTags

Chances are that most criminals will register their AirTags to their own Apple ID, even when they intend to misuse them. However, smarter ones will create a new Apple ID and register the AirTags to that.

Again, it shouldn’t be hard for Apple to look for patterns of brand-new Apple IDs that are used only to register AirTags, with no other activity beyond the use of Find My. Those AirTags can then be flagged and usage patterns examined for other clues to misuse.

3. In both cases, deactivate the AirTag

Where patterns consistent with stalking have been identified by Apple, deactivate the AirTag. For the owner, display a message in the Find My app along the lines of:

This AirTag is inactive. Please visit an Apple Store or contact Apple Support for assistance.

Innocent users would then be able to explain the circumstances and have the AirTag reactivated. If any criminal is stupid enough to seek reactivation, their visit or call would provide further evidence of their ownership of the AirTag.

4. Allow blocking of AirTags owned by specific contacts

At present, any AirTag will be detected by any iPhone. This is, of course, the mechanism by which they can be tracked.

One simple protection, then, would be for Apple to allow iPhone owners to block certain contacts. Once blocked, their iPhone would no longer detect AirTags belonging to that contact – which would lessen their effectiveness for stalking.

This feature could be extended to block AirTag tracking by anyone’s iPhone any time it is within range of someone who has blocked its owner.

This would, of course, only work in certain cases: Where the victim has reason to suspect they may be a stalking victim, and where the stalker has used their own Apple ID. But it wouldn’t take much mainstream media reporting to communicate the message that, if you’re in a troubled relationship, or have had a bad breakup, this is a precaution you can take.

5. Proactively offer help when scanning an AirTag

If someone finds an unknown AirTag on their person or in their vehicle, they can scan it. If it’s in Lost mode, it will display a message from the owner. But if not, both the Find My app and the Android scanning app could pop up a message offering support:

This AirTag has not been reported lost. If you have any reason to believe that you are being stalked, or have been targeted by thieves, please file a police report citing this reference: 9mBT93vVVc. Police will be able to contact Apple at airtagsafety@apple.com to obtain details of the AirTag owner. If you would like support with a stalking concern, here are organizations that can help.

Further AirTag anti-stalking measures would be a win-win

Further improving AirTag anti-stalking measures would mean fewer victims suffer the harmful effects of this crime, and that fewer are placed at risk of assault or murder. It would also enable Apple to show the world that it takes this problem seriously.

These are just some ideas we came up with in a brief chat, but Apple’s own safety experts, in consultation with domestic violence experts, could undoubtedly come up with others.

What are your views? Should Apple take these kind of additional protective measures? Can you think of other possibilities? Please take our poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.

Photo: Onur Binay/Unsplash

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About the Author

Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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