Apple updates AirTags to prevent people from being tracked

Apple Air Tag

Todd Haselton | Apple

Apple on Thursday announced several changes to how its AirTag product works, as the $29 quarter-sized tracker is linked to alleged crimes including harassment and car theft.

Apple will update iPhone and AirTag software to display a message during setup stating that using AirTags to track people is a crime in many parts of the world and law enforcement may request associated user information, he said Thursday. Apple will also introduce a feature called Precision Finding which will direct iPhone users to unknown AirTags when they are nearby.

The changes announced Thursday are the most significant attempts Apple has made to limit the privacy and inconvenience of the product since it went on sale last April.

Apple said Thursday it was working with law enforcement to provide the serial number and Apple ID information in response to subpoenas related to AirTag crimes. He also said he was able to work with law enforcement in some cases to find suspects who were later arrested and charged.

Apple markets AirTags as a useful lost and found finder tool for attaching items such as your keys, wallet, and backpack. The product uses Bluetooth signals and a “vast, global” network of other people’s iPhones to calculate where an AirTag is and display it on a map in the user’s Find My app. Because iPhones are common in urban areas, an AirTag can effectively pinpoint its location within a small area.

AirTags don’t use GPS, and Apple uses advanced encryption to make AirTags “private and secure” by ensuring the anonymity of iPhones in the Find My network.

But after their release, AirTags started showing up in alleged crimes. Thieves could place one in a car and find out where it went next in their Find My app to find the perfect location for a theft, police have alleged. Alleged victims also reported on social media that AirTags had been slipped into the pockets of women in bars or clubs in an example of harassment.

Police in Colorado, Georgia, Michigan and Texas reported the misuse of AirTags, NBC News previously reported.

Apple said Thursday that incidents of AirTag misuse are “rare” and that it has built tools into iPhones to alert users to unwanted tracking. Lost item trackers, like those made by Tile, existed before Apple released AirTag.

“AirTag was designed to help people locate their belongings, not to track the people or property of others, and we condemn in the strongest possible terms any misuse of our products,” Apple said. “Unwanted tracking has long been a societal issue, and we took this concern seriously when designing AirTag.”

In December, Apple released an Android app for AirTags called Tracker Detect, which searches for unknown AirTags (like one placed by a criminal) within Bluetooth range. iPhones with newer software automatically detect AirTags that are not with their owner and play a sound. Apple said Thursday that it will make the AirTag sound louder and show a pop-up to nearby users when there is another person’s AirTag nearby. Users can disable any AirTags they find by removing the cover and removing the battery.

Apple previously said that only the owner of an AirTag can see where it is. This will change slightly in a future software update. A new feature called Precision Finding allows users of recent iPhones to precisely locate unknown AirTags through “a combination of sound, haptics, and visual feedback.”

Apple hasn’t released sales figures for the AirTags, but its $29 price tag means it’s unlikely to be a big sales driver for the company. However, it’s strategic for Apple: Features like Find My make iPhone users more likely to switch to another iPhone.

Apple’s marketing has focused on privacy and security as a major reason to buy its products, and reports of harassment and crimes using AirTags force the tech giant to distinguish between offering a useful lost item finder tool and the downside of making location tracking available to anyone with an iPhone and a $29 tracker.

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