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Apple AirTags are an extraordinary piece of tech, but have serious privacy flaws

Apple’s new $39.99 ($29 USD) AirTag is a small smart bluetooth tracker. Once attached it can be located using the Find My app, currently only available on Apple devices.

Apple’s newly released AirTag is a small bluetooth tracker that can be precisely located with the help of Apple’s Find My network. Its small size allows it to be easily placed alongside your keys, wallet, or even with your AirPods.

Despite Apple being an innovative company, creating innovative products, AirTags may have been preemptively released without much concern regarding ways to misuse it.

By default, Apple devices such as the iPhone, iPad and Mac are automatically enrolled to contribute to the network. Whenever one of these devices gets in range with an AirTag, it will update the location using the device’s GPS. Of course, you can choose to opt out your device’s contribution by disabling it in the Settings.

The idea of a bluetooth tracker has been around for a while. Tile, founded in 2012, was one of the first to sell a device of this nature. Samsung released the “SmartTag” only a few days prior to Apple’s announcement of the AirTag. Both Samsung and Tile have their own counterpart to Apple’s Find My network, but they both lack the most crucial component to a large mesh network. The number of devices within the network. According to gs.statcounter.com, Apple has around a 50% market share in Canada, and Samsung has about 28%. There is no data for Tile as they are not a smartphone manufacturer, but to be a part of their network you must own a Tile device.

Even though it might seem like Samsung is not that far behind with its network, it does not automatically roll devices into its network, they must have the SmartThings app installed. Making matters worse, Samsung has many different smartphone lineups. This has bottlenecked Samsung for a while, as they are usually unable to keep their whole lineup of devices up to date for more than 2-3 years. Devices that aren’t on the latest software update are even less likely to be a part of the network.

Apple has a significant advantage here, as they only release a small number of phones every year, they are able to keep them up to date for far more years compared to Samsung. This is extremely important because for a device to contribute to the Find My network, it needs to be on at least iOS 14.

Apple AirTag vs Tile Mate vs Tile Pro

The device itself is an extraordinary piece of tech for its size. An AirTag is about the size of a quarter, only slightly larger. Ringing the device can be done within the Find My app, featured only on iOS. It will play a series of brief high pitched noises, the sound coming out of an AirTag can not be changed. Meanwhile with Tile, there are 10 different ringtones that you can choose from. Tile ringtones play for a longer period of time, and I found that if I were to lose something in my house, it would be easier to find a Tile over an AirTag since Tile plays one consecutive tone while AirTags beep for a few seconds.

If you own an iPhone 11 or later, you can use Precision Finding to help locate your AirTag. It utilizes the new U1 Ultra Wideband chip to precisely locate the AirTag by playing a game of “hot and cold” with an arrow. A significant flaw with this is that you need to be relatively close to the device for the arrow to work. You can locate it much quicker based on the location of the sound. The only scenario that it could be useful in is if you were outdoors, it can be very difficult to hear the sound. Otherwise it’s mostly a gimmick.

Setting up AirTags is super easy, all you need to do is hold it near an Apple device and it will automatically show a prompt to set it up.

With 4 simple steps, AirTags will automatically attach to your iCloud account.

Privacy concerns

With the launch of a tracking device that uses other’s GPS, it raises a lot of concerns for privacy.

Since an AirTag is as small as a quarter, what if you snuck it in someone’s bag? If they carry a device on the Find My network, they will actively update the location of the AirTag. 

Apple addressed this concern by initially designing the AirTag to enter a mode after 3 days where it would notify nearby Apple devices that there is an unknown AirTag with them. The AirTag will also briefly play a sound. Recently, Apple announced that they would change this time frame from 3 days to randomly between 8-24 hours (also the first bluetooth tracking device to receive software updates). 

This raises the question, what if you don’t own an Apple device? You will not receive the notification that there is an unknown AirTag by your side. Apple addresses this by saying that they will release an app for Android later this year. Well, will the app just be for this specific function? Who is going to download an app just for that? They would need to advertise the app for people to download it, which seems unlikely that many people will download this app. 

It seems like Apple only promised this for “positive PR”, I highly doubt they originally planned to release an app for Android.

Using AirTags for its intended purpose has greatly eased the finding of my keys, but who knows what can happen when it’s in the wrong hands. 

1 comment on “Apple AirTags are an extraordinary piece of tech, but have serious privacy flaws

  1. Interesting post – I agree that there seems to be a lack of thought on possible misuses. I can imagine PIs finding them very useful! Perhaps Apple / Samsung don’t really care as long as they sell product. Reminds me of The Circle

    Like

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