Thursday, May 19, 2022

Is Apple AirTags causing any good?

Apple has released yet another category-defining product, however, not in the way the company would’ve wanted. AirTags, the company’s affordable & cheerful tracking devices, has become the category’s foremost technology. Yet, the misuse of this gadget has embroiled the company in scandal.

Is Apple AirTags causing any good?
Is Apple AirTags causing any good?

A spectrum of reports linked AirTags to stalking as well as theft, with one of the most prominent being the story of model Brooke Snader. Who found out she had one of the devices slipped into her coat pocket at a bar. Though Apple has been caught in the fire for releasing the product, AirTags operate in a gray area.

Let’s consider the Snader incident as an example. The reason she knew someone planted a tracker on her was that her iPhone sent an alert regarding it. Things might’ve been far worse, as these safety measures are not present in similar technology, for example in GPS trackers.

This raises the question. How dangerous are AirTags? How can they be compared to other trackers on the market? What’s Apple’s responsibility after releasing this product? The widespread use of Apple, combined with its cultural following, means that by releasing such a product, it creates a market for the product’s abuse. Potentially even seeding this idea in people who previously hadn’t considered it.

Tile, a smaller company that makes a similar product, doesn’t have to deal with problems like these. Those are not the only differences. AirTags operate using a Bluetooth mesh network, they specifically use Apple’s Find My infrastructure. This means their location is marked when there is an Apple device in range, the range is around 10 meters.

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Again, Tile does something similar. The difference is, as per estimates there are almost a billion Apple devices on Find My network. On the other hand, Tile’s numbers are opaquer, they are multitudes lower. It has sold around 35 million units with partnerships with over 20 companies that include its tracker-finding capability in a few of its products. 

While Apple arguably makes the most efficient Bluetooth-first trackers, the technology thus contains fundamental flaws. GPS units’ hardware uses satellite-based radio navigation, these can provide precise information on someone’s location. This provides people unprecedented access as well as knowledge of their victims’ movements.

I am not saying AirTags aren’t accurate. Apple’s trackers are only accurate enough to find out where someone is, broadly. For example, at home or at the gym, which in some scenarios is sufficient. An area of differentiation between Bluetooth and satellite-based trackers is the battery life.

As per ProPrivacy’s Dawson, while GPS devices “have greater coverage,” their operation is more energy-intensive. AirTags, on the other hand, uses “Bluetooth to communicate with other nearby Apple devices”, this is designed for “low power consumption,” so they have the potential to operate for far longer.

Has Apple taken this danger into account while working on AirTags?

Ben Wood, the Chief Analyst at CCS Insight, explained how the company has “tried to address (the) privacy issues,” specifically by making AirTags randomly beep. OR. By delivering “on-phone alerts” to anyone near a rogue device.

Sadly, these safety features have not been enough. Warnings often take days to kick in. They rarely last long when they do appear, making them easy to miss. Apple has shown a capacity as well as a desire to address these problems. The company has also recently updated its Personal Safety User Guide. It also outlined both ongoing improvements, along with those that will be released in the future.

Like, in the upcoming iOS 15.4, the company will be displaying a message declaring that tracking unwilling people with AirTags is a crime. As every piece of hardware has its unique serial number, Apple’s already working with law enforcement in cases of abuse, then to trace the devices “back to the [perpetrators].” On top of that, Apple will also roll out a series of updates, including making rogue AirTags easier to find. This will be done by displaying an alert on nearby iPhones alongside their warning sound, improving the unwanted tracking logic, along fine-tuning of the tracker’s auditory alert.

When the features will launch is currently unknown, however, it is slated to be later in 2022. Apple’s eagerness for improving the AirTags is admirable, however, it also feels substantially flawed. Most of the aforementioned safety features, for example, phone alerts, only work by default on Apple devices. While the company has released an Android app, it cannot automatically warn people if they’re being stalked. They have to physically check instead.

Not only do Android users need to download the app, but they also need to actively ensure that they aren’t being stalked by AirTags. To be summed up simply, the burden of responsibility is on the potential victims.

To provide a counter for this, Apple should work with other phone manufacturers as well as Google to ensure the same safety measures built-in iOS exist on Android as well as other mobile operating systems.

The question that has to be raised is whether this level of accountability is fair to lay at Apple’s feet. No other producers of Bluetooth-powered trackers, for example, Tile or Chipolo, have introduced nearly even half of the safety measures that Apple has. However, neither of the companies have trillion-dollar valuations, a billion-device mesh network, or even the mind-boggling cultural capital.

What about the GPS trackers? These are surely just as dangerous as AirTags, however, there haven’t been the same sort of public as well as media uproar regarding the technology.

As per ProPrivacy’s Dawson, “In essence, AirTags are not replacing GPS trackers for long-term surveillance.” “What AirTags are doing is they’re enabling highly accurate short-term surveillance in a very light as well as an easy way to hide package at a relatively low cost.”

When considered, Apple’s technology is little or no more dangerous than other easily available tracking gadgets. Despite this, the company must bear the responsibility of the 2 main things AirTags’ launch has enabled.

  1. Apple gave potential criminals another tool to add to their arsenal. 
  2. The second is it has normalized as well as popularized trackers in a way that has never been seen before.

With this much exposure, comes abuse.

“We usually find that the perpetrators are using the tracking gadgets to monitor a woman’s location. So that they can, control them and also intimidate them,” according to Emma Pickering from Tech Abuse Lead at Refuge, which is a domestic violence charity. 

She also pointed out that Apple’s AirTags are “just one of the many devices” people tend to use. She also stated that there has been “a 97% increase in complex abuse cases being referred to her team between April 2020 and May 2021.”

This is where we come to the essence of the issue. We asking whether AirTags are more or less dangerous than other trackers is not the right question. Anything could be deadly when in the wrong hands.

It is undeniable that AirTags have pushed trackers mainstream. They have also made them more accessible, and this works both ways. The major public is now more aware of the dangers of this technology. While Apple is focused on improving its product’s safety in ways other manufacturers either cannot or will not.

We cannot overlook the company’s role, nor can we condemn it. Instead, Apple has waded into a societal issue, one that we’ll never be able to solve with just a software update.

If you are worried that you and your location are being tracked by a current or a former partner, you can visit Refuge’s tech safety website. If you happen to live in the UK, you have the ability to access free and confidential support from Refuge’s 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on +44 808 2000 247.

There is also Digital support available via live chat Monday-Friday 3-10 pm GMT.

If you happen to live in the US, you can connect to the National Center for Victims of Crime. They can be called on +1 202 467 8700.

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