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Are AirTags Dangerous? What You Need to Know About Location Trackers

Are AirTags dangerous? Here's what you need to know.

AirTags, a tracking technology designed by Apple, are one of those things that feel like futuristic tech. Lost your wallet, your backpack, or your keys? If you’ve put an AirTag on them, your iPhone can now lead you directly to the lost item. That’s an incredibly useful tool. But every piece of technology comes with risks. Before you start attaching AirTags to everything, it’s important to consider if AirTags are dangerous. Because as useful as they are, they can also be used for truly nefarious purposes.

How AirTags Work

An AirTag is a circular piece of technology just a bit bigger than a quarter. It uses Bluetooth to broadcast it’s location to Apple’s Find My network. According to Apple, this Bluetooth connection is secure and the process is “anonymous and encrypted to protect your privacy.” There is no cellular or GPS technology in the AirTag – its network is other Apple devices around it.

AirTags are designed to help you keep track of your stuff. If you attach an AirTag to your keys, wallet, backpack, or anything else, you’ll be able to track the location of those items in the Find My app on your iPhone or iPad. It also offers a featured called Precision Finding. If the object with the AirTag is close enough (like if you lost your keys somewhere in your house), it can show a directional arrow and a distance on your screen to lead you directly to the item.

AirTags aren’t the only tracking technology of this type on the market. There are similar devices made by other companies, such as Tile, Chipolo, and Samsung. Some of these have additional features, like adhesives to stick directly to items or integration with your smart home. It’s important to remember that when you’re considering if AirTags are dangerous, the same considerations apply to these other devices, as well.

Why AirTags Are Useful

As previously mentioned, you can use AirTags to track almost anything you want. Each one will show up on the Find My app so you can keep track of it, and Precision Finding can lead you directly to it if it’s nearby. But there are additional features that make AirTags even more useful.

One of these features is “Lost Mode.” If you lose something, you can put it in Lost Mode. When the AirTag is detected by another Apple device, it will send you a notification. You also have the option to let people see your contact information so they can return it to you. Notify When Left Behind is a similar feature designed to prevent things from being lost in the first place. If you turn this setting on, you’ll get a notification if you leave a location and the AirTag didn’t come with you.

One final alert that you may get is a proximity alert. Apple knows people are wondering if AirTags are dangerous, and they want you to be safe. If someone else’s AirTag gets in your stuff, either intentionally or unintentionally, you’ll get an alert. This only triggers if the AirTag’s owner isn’t with you. If you’re carrying your friend’s keys as you both walk through a parking lot, it won’t notify you since your friend is there. But if someone at a bar slips an AirTag into your pocket, you’ll get a notification once you’re far enough away.

When Not to Use AirTags

Regardless of whether or not AirTags are dangerous, there are some cases where you just shouldn’t use them. It’s not illegal to use this type of technology to track objects you own. But using it to track other people without their consent is illegal and a crime in many parts of the world, including many US states. If you want to track the locations of your family members, encourage them to share their location with you in the Find My app instead.

In some cases, you shouldn’t use AirTags to track your checked luggage when flying. The US Federal Aviation Administration allows tracking devices in checked luggage as long as the battery has 0.3 grams or less of lithium. (AirTags meet this requirement – if you’re using another brand, check the battery details before you fly.) Internationally, few other aviation agencies have official policies and the rules are set by the airlines themselves. If you’re flying internationally, check the airline’s policy first.

Apple also says not to use AirTags to track your pets or kids. For kids and pets, AirTags are dangerous. They are small enough to be a swallowing risk. Vets have reported lots of cases of dogs eating AirTags that were attached to their collars. The devices may pass safely through the digestive system, but if they’re compromised in any way, they could leak poison or battery acid into the child or pet’s stomach. It’s safest to keep them out of reach and not use them on kids and pets.

The final situation where you shouldn’t use AirTags is if you don’t have an Apple device. AirTags currently only work with Apple devices like iPhones and iPads. If you don’t own one of those, you won’t be able to set up or track it.

When AirTags Turn Dangerous: Misuse by Stalkers and Thieves

One of the greatest strengths of AirTags is that they’re so small, you can use them to track almost anything. But that’s also one of the things that makes AirTags dangerous. Since they’re only slightly larger than a quarter, it’s very easy for someone to slip one into your purse, pocket, or car.

One feature that makes AirTags dangerous is how easy they are to hide in a purse, pocket, or car.

Apple claims incidents of misuse are rare, but reports still happen. A Sports Illustrated model, for example, had someone slip an AirTag into her coat pocket at a bar. She discovered it because of the proximity alert it sent to her iPhone. Apple is trying hard to reduce misuse, but there isn’t a foolproof way to do it. Stalkers, manipulators, and abusers can still use these devices to track people.

And stalking isn’t the only way that AirTags can be dangerous. Police in several states have reported AirTags used for car theft. Would-be thieves attached them to expensive cars and then used the tracking technology to follow the cars. When they were parked for the night or otherwise left unattended, the thieves showed up and stole them.

Using AirTags for Good

Criminals and stalkers aren’t the only ones who can use this technology, though. Having location data is really useful for tracking scammers. Scambaiters are people who trick, track, and hack scammers to learn about their scam methods or shut down their operations.

Ben Taylor, who goes by the name Pleasant Green on YouTube, has used AirTags in his efforts to expose scammers. In one video, he puts an AirTag in a package full of cash to track “money mules,” the people who help scammers move their stolen funds around. What he ended up uncovering was both how some money mules operate and a surprising drama between scammers. This technology is great for stalkers and thieves, but it can also be used by the good guys to help defend us.

Reducing AirTag Dangers with Proximity Alerts

The Find My app will provide a proximity alert if it detects an AirTag separated from its owner and traveling with you. It will give you the option to disable it or make it play a sound so you can find it. However, these options only work on iOS 14.5 or higher. And if you don’t have an Apple device, you won’t get any notifications.

If you don’t have an Apple device, you won’t get the notification as quickly, but Apple still wants to make you aware. AirTags automatically play a sound if separated from their owner for an “extended time” (somewhere between 8 and 24 hours). However, if you’re being tracked by someone you come home to every day, it’s very possible for someone without an Apple device to be constantly tracked and never find out. To counter this, Apple released the Android app Tracker Detect. The app lets non-Apple devices scan nearby and find AirTags and other Find My-enabled devices. Unfortunately, though, the scan has to be done manually every time.

What to Do if You Get an Alert

So you got a proximity alert. Does that mean someone is stalking you? Not necessarily. When you get the alert, don’t panic. Follow these steps to ensure your safety.

First, use the notification to make the AirTag play a sound, or use Find Nearby and use the distance and direction display, and find it. There might be a good reason for it to be there. Maybe you borrowed someone’s keys and they have an AirTag on them, or someone left their AirPods in your car. If you’re with a friend, perhaps they borrowed something from a roommate or spouse that has that person’s AirTag attached. Or if someone connected an AirTag you carry around to their phone instead of yours, you will get an alert when you’re not with that person.

The notification displays when the AirTag is separated from the iPhone it’s registered to, regardless of whether or not it’s malicious. Once you find the AirTag that triggered the alert, you may realize that it’s not suspicious or malicious at all.

What to Do if You Don’t Recognize the AirTag

If you don’t recognize the AirTag once you’ve found it, you can get more information about it. Hold the top of your iPhone near the white side of the AirTag until you get a notification. Tap the notification, and it will open a website showing information about it. At the very least, it will include the serial number of the AirTag and the last four digits of the phone number it’s registered to. This may help you determine if the AirTag is dangerous. If the owner marked it as lost with Lost Mode, you’ll also see contact information so they can get it back. It’s a good idea to screenshot this page.

If you feel that it’s there maliciously, you can disable it. But be aware if you do that, the owner will no longer be able to see its location and may realize you’ve found it. Depending on the situation, this may put you in more danger. If you feel like your safety is at risk, contact law enforcement. They can work with Apple to get information on whose tracker it is and why it’s being used. You may need to give them the AirTag itself, as well as the serial number and phone information from the info screen.

False Positive Alerts

Recently, AirTags have been having problems with false positives and phantom alerts. These most often occur in the middle of the night. With a normal alert, you will get a map showing where the AirTag was tracking you. The false alarms show only straight lines from your current location. It appears to be some kind of glitch, and though Apple has said they are working on it, it still happens.

Another false positive people sometimes get is a proximity alert that turns out to be from one of their own AirTags. Others have reported similar confusing alerts triggered by AirPods. Again, Apple is working on fixes, but it is still occasionally happening. A spokesperson suggested it could come from wifi signals temporarily confusing location, and toggling Location Services on and off while wifi is enabled might fix the problem.

Understanding AirTag Dangers and Safety

There’s nothing wrong with using AirTags. In fact, the technology can be a great tool to help you locate possessions you’ve lost and keep track of important items. But it’s also very possible for AirTags to be dangerous when they’re misused.

If you get an alert, the first step is not to panic. Follow the steps to deal with it. It may turn out to be a glitch or a false positive, or an AirTag that has a legitimate reason for being with you. Not every alert means you’re being stalked. The key is to do your due diligence. Don’t brush off alerts, but don’t panic, either.

So far, Apple is the only tracker company that is working on privacy and making their technology less dangerous. Other tracking device companies don’t have similar alerts. The best way to counter the features that make tracking devices like AirTags dangerous is awareness. Know they exist, know how they work, and know how to detect them when you can.

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