Warning: Apple AirTag and Tile Misuse

The popular, small, quarter-sized tracking devices are typically kept on items easily misplaced or lost such as keychains, purses, wallets, and luggage to name a few. However, because of their small profile, robust network and effectiveness – it is becoming a go-to choice for stalkers to track your location. PA’s Attorney General warns about the abuse of this technology. I’ll explain how the technology works and why it is a concern, so stay on this page!

Tiles can be customized and come in credit card, keychain, button (sticker), and key fob (not shown) sizes. Screenshot captured from Tile.com

How it works

Tracking devices are one of the most popular technologies within the umbrella term The Internet of Things (IoT). IoT is growing fast, with more sensors and data being transmitted every day to further enhance our everyday lives, ranging from smart home appliances to environmental sensors for agriculture, air quality and weather.

There are two major product lines of tracking devices: Tile, and Apple’s newly-released line of AirTags. These affordable devices start at a cool $35 and stylish options can go to $300. They use a common CR2030 watch battery to power a circuit board that connects with nearby Bluetooth devices within range that host the Tile app or Apple’s Find My app (range is 30 feet, but future devices will use LoRaWAN radio which has a 10 mile range). When the device is separate from it’s familiar network of devices, it beeps. All phones with the app share data to each other and build a network of coverage and any device reported as lost will have its location shown to the original owner.

The privacy problem

Someone could use this affordable, small and robust device to stick one on your car, in your bag, or clip it to your bag and you wouldn’t know. Parents use them on children’s backpacks or in their child’s pocket, but the same could be done without your consent. Normally, a device in lost mode will beep to help whoever is nearby to find it, but this can easily be tampered and turned off or wrapped in something sound deadening. You’ll never hear it under a car.

How to detect a nearby tag

The best you can do is educate yourself and install each of the device’s apps on your phone to scan for nearby devices. Not all of the devices that may show up are malicious. But, if you scan at work, and come home and scan again, you should see a new set of devices but if there’s one that follows you, then you know you have a problem.

Apple AirTags can be stuck to, dropped in, or also in keychained to an item. Screenshot from apple.com

Take the following steps to protect yourself:

  • Listen for unfamiliar beeping. AirTags and Tiles separated from their familiar phone will beep after a set amount of time.
  • Watch for Item Detected Near You notifications on your phone. Tap the message, and your phone will send a command for the device to make noise so you can find it. There is also a display that shows if you are farther or closer to the object.
    • For Apple – iPhone 6s or newer has detection built in, making it a very robust network for AirTags. Separate app needed for Tile.
    • For Android – download the Tracker Detect app by Apple; Tile app.
  • Not all devices you find are malicious, it is legitimately lost by its user. The apps will give you information on how to return the device and whatever it is attached to/in.

If you found a misused tracking device, remove the battery from the device and contact your local law enforcement.