What is AirTag stalking?

What is AirTag stalking and how to protect against it

In an era of “smart devices(new window)” that often double as spy devices(new window), AirTags are tracking tools that are open about their function and can be vital in helping locate lost items (as anyone who has lost their car keys can attest to). However, as a recent class action lawsuit(new window) against Apple alleging that AirTags have become “the weapon of choice of stalkers and abusers” demonstrates, the convenience AirTags offer comes with serious privacy concerns over their misuse.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the phenomenon of AirTag stalking, discuss how AirTags work, and suggest ways you can defend yourself against this unwelcome new form of cyberstalking.

What is an AirTag?

An Apple AirTag is a small device designed to help you locate lost items using Apple’s Find My network. AirTags don’t connect to the internet directly but instead emit a secure Bluetooth signal that any nearby Apple devices can detect.

If a device is marked as lost (put into Lost Mode by its owner), any Apple device that detects it (including those of strangers who happen to be near the lost AirTag’s location) will report the AirTag’s location to its owner, who can then see its location on a map in the Find My app. 

How does an AirTag work?

AirTags work using a combination of Bluetooth, Apple’s  Find My network, and Ultra Wideband technology. Here’s a step-by-step explanation of how they operate:

  • Bluetooth: Each AirTag emits a secure Bluetooth signal that nearby devices in the Find My network can detect. The AirTag itself doesn’t connect to the internet.
  • Find My network: When a device detects an AirTag’s Bluetooth signal, it uses its own internet connection to upload the AirTag’s location to Apple’s Find My network. This is done anonymously and privately — no one, not even the person who owns the device that detects the AirTag can see which AirTag they’ve detected or who it belongs to.
  • Ultra Wideband technology: For precision finding, AirTags use Apple’s U1 chip with Ultra Wideband technology, which is available on newer iPhone models (iPhone 11 and later). This allows you to see more precise directions to your AirTag in real time, using input from the camera, ARKit, accelerometer, and gyroscope to guide you to your AirTag with a combination of sound, haptics, and visual feedback.
  • Lost Mode: If you lose an item with an AirTag attached, you can put the AirTag in Lost Mode via the Find My app. If another Apple device detects your lost AirTag, you’ll automatically receive a notification of its location.

If someone finds a lost AirTag, they can tap it using any NFC-capable device to see a webpage that shows a contact phone number you’ve provided.

AirTags are undetectable by devices other than your own unless put into  Lost Mode. An important limitation of AirTags is that most features, including the ability to set them up, are only accessible through Apple devices. 

What is AirTag stalking?

AirTag stalking refers to the misuse of AirTags to secretly track someone without their consent. This involves placing an AirTag on a person, their belongings, or their vehicle, allowing the stalker to monitor their location with the Find My network. This type of tracking can be a serious invasion of privacy and is considered a form of harassment or stalking.

Since the first AirTag was released there has been a continued slew of reports(new window) about its abuse as a stalking tool, including its use in a murder case(new window).

How can you know if you’re being AirTag stalked?

In response to these criticisms, Apple has built some safety features into AirTags aimed at preventing illicit AirTag tracking. There are also measures you can take to protect yourself.

Receive automatic alerts on your smartphone

If you have a smartphone, it will periodically scan for unknown AirTags automatically. If an unknown AirTag (not connected to your Apple ID) is detected that’s also out of range of the owner’s device and appears to be traveling with you, you’ll receive an AirTag Detected Near You notification on your phone. 

This feature is enabled by default. To manually enable Tracking Notifications, ensure Location Services, Find My iPhone, Significant Locations, and Bluetooth are all turned on (instructions on how to enable all these settings(new window)), and Airplane Mode is turned off.

Then open the Find My app, go to the Me tab → Customize Tracking Notifications → toggle the Allow notifications switch on.

Turn on Tracking Notifications o iOS and iPadOS

Until recently, only Apple devices running iOS or iPadOS 14.5+ benefited from this protection. However, Google (in cooperation with Apple) introduced Unknown Tracker Alerts on all Android 6+ devices that leverage its Find My Device network.

This feature works very like the Tracking Notifications on an iPhone, but Unknown Tracker Alerts will eventually warn you about all kinds of tracking devices, including Tile Trackers and Samsung SmartTags. However, only Apple AirTag detection is supported at the time of writing. 

On most Android devices, this feature is enabled by default. To enable it manually, open the Settings app, go to Safety and emergencyUnknown tracker alerts, and toggle the Allow alerts switch on (details may vary slightly depending on the version of Android).

Enable Unknown tracker alerts on Android

Automatic audio alerts

After four to 12 hours from being out of Bluetooth range of a device belonging to whoever it’s registered to, AirTags will emit a beeping noise when moved. This is designed to alert anyone who doesn’t use a smartphone that they’re being stalked.

Unfortunately, although Apple has made efforts to increase the volume of these beeps, this noise still isn’t very loud, and it only plays once each time the AirTag is moved. It’s therefore easy to miss (especially if the tag is attached to your car instead of your person). 

Manually scan for trackers using your smartphone

Both iOS, iPadOS, and (now) Android devices can proactively scan for “lost” AirTags within Bluetooth range (about 15 meters/50 feet). 

On your iPhone or iPad, open the Find My app and go to the Items tab. If you see an Items Detected With You or Items That Can Track Me message, tap on it and follow the instructions to locate it. If you don’t see a message, no AirTags were detected.

On Android, open the Settings app, go to Safety and emergencyUnknown tracker alerts, and tap Scan now. If a tracker is detected, follow the instructions provided to pinpoint its location.

Perform a manual tracker scan on Android

Note that there are plenty of third-party tracker detection apps, but the introduction of tracker detention by Android itself (which Apple itself worked with Google to build) makes these apps (which were often unreliable anyway) obsolete.

Physically search for AirTags

If you have reason to be particularly concerned about being AirTag stalked, you should routinely give your clothes (including pockets) a routine physical inspection. The same goes for your luggage, car, and other personal effects you carry with you (like a backpack or purse). 

What to do if you detect a ‘lost’ AirTag near you

The first thing to note is that false positive results are quite common. If you’re in a public space, the AirTag could simply have been separated from its owner or stolen (not great, but a stolen tracker presents no danger to yourself). So stay calm and either locate it or move to another location and try to detect the AirTag again to see if it’s traveling with you. 

If you detect an AirTag with an iPhone, a map will open showing  its approximate location and how long it’s been near you. You’ll also have the option to tap Play Sound, which will instruct the AirTag to emit a beeping sound, making it easier to find. You’ll also have the option to disable the tracker immediately. 

On Android, you don’t get the map option or ability to remotely disable the AirTag, but you can tap Play sound to make it easier to find.

Tell the AirTag to play a sound

Once you’ve located the AirTag, tap it with any NFC-enabled device. This opens a web page showing the device’s serial number and instructions on how to turn it off. As already noted, you can do this automatically using an iPhone. A more robust solution available to everyone is simply to remove its battery. To do this:

  • Locate the small indentation on the back of the AirTag and press it down.
  • Rotate the cover counterclockwise until it stops (aligned with the mark).
  • Remove the cover and take out the battery.

If you believe someone used the AirTag maliciously to track you, you should contact the police. The device’s serial number (see above) will help them with their investigations.

Final thoughts

Unwanted AirTag tracking is a real and growing problem. In addition to (the often female(new window)) victims of domestic abuse or sexual predators, politicians, journalists, activists, business leaders, and scientists are all potential high-value targets for this new form of cyberstalking.

Apple has always provided iPhone owners with tools to help prevent AirTag abuse (although it’s been forced to improve these in response to the sheer amount of reported abuse), but only around 17% of smartphone users globally use iPhones(new window).

Apple’s recent cooperation with Google to provide Android users with at least some protection against the threat posed by AirTags is therefore a very welcome move. Unfortunately, this still leaves over a billion non-smartphone users worldwide vulnerable to AirTag stalking. 

At Proton, we believe that privacy should be the default for everyone. This is why we offer free plans for all our products — to empower those who need privacy the most. We’re also committed to calling out Big Tech when it prioritizes profits over the best interests of not just its customers but wider society (especially its most vulnerable members).   

With a free Proton VPN account, you can defeat censorship, hide your IP address from websites you visit, and prevent your  ISP (and therefore your government) from knowing what you do online.

Frequently asked questions

What is the Apple AirTag range, and can you track an AirTag miles away?

AirTags use Bluetooth. They do not connect to WiFi networks or use Global Positioning System (GPS). This means that an iPhone (or Android phone, if scanning for “lost” AirTags) must be within 15 meters / 50 feet of the AirTag to detect it.
However, any iPhone within range of an AirTag will relay its location to its owner, allowing AirTag owners to track their devices over great distances (as long as someone with an iPhone moves within range of the AirTag).

Can you track an AirTag’s location history?

No. You can’t see where an AirTag has been in the past. Only where it is now.

How to find AirTag in my car?

Use the methods outlined in this article to find an AirTag that’s been hidden in your car. Scan for it with a smartphone (if you have one), or thoroughly and methodically check both the inside and outside (including the underside) of your car.

What about AirTag privacy?

Outside their unwanted tracking safety features, AirTags have strong privacy protections. They don’t store any location data or location history. Instead, they relay this data through Apple’s Find My network, which uses end-to-end encryption to ensure that only the AirTag’s owner can access its location data.

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