A 24-year-old Los Angeles resident, Ashley Estrada found an unknown AirTag hidden under the rear number plate of her car. A safety alert, “AirTag Detected Near You” on her iPhone, notified Ms. Estrada of the tracker was first spotted four hours earlier and its history on the Find My app showed that it had been traveling with the victim while she was running errands across the city.
Ms. Estrada said that she felt violated and scared, “I just felt like, who’s tracking me? What was their intent with me? Unfortunately, she is not alone. Recently, a number of cases have been reported where car owners have received notifications of suspicious AirTags or trackers traveling with them. It is presumed that car thieves hide the trackers in the victim’s vehicles and track their location while waiting for an opportune time to steal them.
A Michigan resident, John Nelson, found an unknown AirTag hidden inside the drain cap under his Dodge Charger’s trunk. Nelson too came into action after receiving a safety alert on this iPhone and he filed a complaint at the Novi Police Department. However, not all victims pay attention to the safety alerts.
In Canada, the problem is getting worse. The police reported five incidents in which car thieves used AirTag to locate and steal high-end vehicles. The culprits target luxury or expensive vehicles in public places and stick the tracker in an out of sight place on the vehicle to snatch it later, mostly from the victim’s driveway.
Victims of stalking via AirTag feel violated and unprotected
The New York Times reports that “there is growing concern that the devices may be abetting a new form of stalking” and several victims have shared their experience of finding AirTags in their belongings and on their cars on social media platforms like Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok. And this stalking epidemic violates their privacy and puts their safety at risk.
AirTag is only a 1.26-inch device that can be placed anywhere. Via the Find My network, users can track its location in real-time. Apple also introduced privacy features to prevent stalking via the track like making a sound when separate from the owner, sending safety alerts, and providing instructions on how to disable a suspicious tracker.
But when traveling in a car, those sound are not loud enough and the victims say the police does not take the safety alert seriously.
Police could ask Apple to provide information about the owner of the AirTag, potentially identifying the culprit. But some of the people who spoke with The Times were unable to find the associated AirTags they were notified of and said the police do not always take reports of the notifications on their phones seriously.
With the availability of other trackers in the market like Tile, it might seem unfair to target AirTag as the tool for criminals which is the only tracker with privacy features. Having said that, experts believe that AirTag’s ability to provide accurate location makes it a popular device for unlawful activities. Eva Galperin, a cybersecurity director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who studies so-called stalkerware said:
AirTags present a “uniquely harmful” threat because the ubiquity of Apple’s products allows for more exact monitoring of people’s movements.
Apple automatically turned every iOS device into part of the network that AirTags use to report the location of an AirTag. 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.”