Ars Technica: Apple AirTags really are like magic for iPhone users, but Android users could be stalked

Ars Technica spent several days testing Apple AirTags in myriad situations and found that “they work stunningly well.”

Apple's AirTag
Apple’s AirTag

AirTag sends out a secure Bluetooth signal that can be detected by nearby devices in the Find My network. These devices send the location of the AirTag to iCloud — then the owner can go to the Find My app and see it on a map. The whole process is anonymous and encrypted to protect users’ privacy. And itʼs efficient, so thereʼs no need to worry about battery life or data usage.

Only the AirTag owner can see where the AirTag is. The owner’s location data and history are never stored on the AirTag itself. Devices that relay the location of the AirTag also stay anonymous, and that location data is encrypted every step of the way. So not even Apple knows the location of an AirTag or the identity of the device that helps find it.

AirTag is designed to discourage unwanted tracking. If someone else’s AirTag finds its way into your stuff, your iPhone will notice it’s traveling with you and send you an alert. After a while, if you still haven’t found it, the AirTag will start playing a sound to let you know it’s there.

Samueal Axon for Ars Technica:

I can’t imagine recommending any of the preceding attempts at this concept over AirTags if you have an iPhone. (Sadly, Android users are quite literally left to their own devices—in more ways than usual, as you’ll see later in this review.)

MacDailyNews Take: What’s “sad” about it? Those who settle for Android have made their choice. They’ve settled for second- and third-rate apps ported from iOS masters, for second- and third-rate accessories, for second- and third-rate experiences, and for second- and third-rate devices cobbled together from off-the-rack components underpowered by significantly inferior processors loaded with a third-party OS from a online advertising company masquerading as a search engine that’s known for serially trampling user privacy.

Those who’ve settled for Android chose to be sad.

If someone places an AirTag on your person or in your possessions, your first line of defense may be a notification to your iPhone that a foreign AirTag is present. Apple designed the iPhone-AirTag connection to do this under two conditions: after the AirTag has stuck with you for a certain “continuous” amount of time that Apple deems sufficient to be considered abnormal, or if you arrive at the location that either your iPhone’s machine learning smarts have identified as home or that you have manually recorded as home.

This is all good, but I don’t think this defense activates quickly enough — it needs to be a bit more aggressive. The length of time doesn’t seem to be consistent, but it seems to be in the ballpark of a couple of hours.

But there’s a much more critical problem: this feature is only available to people with devices running iOS 14.5. That leaves users who haven’t updated their iPhones on their own, but — more critically given that most people update their iPhones fairly promptly — it leaves anyone with an Android phone (that is, the significant majority of people) without this line of protection.

MacDailyNews Take: If Android settlers actually cared about privacy, they wouldn’t have settled for Android.

AirTags work fantastically well—better, probably, than you even expected. In urban areas, there are so many Find My-connected devices around, AirTags really are like magic. You can consistently find your lost items quickly, easily, and (it seems) securely, whether you dropped them miles away or lost them in your own couch cushions.

I have no complaints about the user experience or functionality of AirTags for those who buy them to use them for their intended purpose. They are much better than most preceding competitors, thanks primarily to Apple’s huge install base.

But I have deep concerns about how AirTags could be used outside their intended purpose. They can be used maliciously to track people, particularly people who do not have iPhones that can detect them quickly.

MacDailyNews Take: If you’re worried about being stalked via AirTag, upgrade to a real iPhone.

That said, Apple will need to tweak easy-to-alter things like how long it will take AirTag to start making a noise when it has been separated from its owner’s other devices (currently three days, which is likely too long if stalking is the issue), but, for iPhone users, who will be notified via their iPhones that a foreign AirTag is present, AirTag has a useful anti-stalking feature built-in (even if, as Axon suggests, Apple needs to make that notification happen with more urgency).

18 Comments

  1. Seems like there are so many edge cases that likely couldn’t be fully anticipated or tested before release. Some may be easy like subways, where you’re all travelling together with each other’s AirTags, and some may be trickier like trains, where you may be travelling next to another person’s luggage/AirTag that has been separated from its owner for a time.

    No doubt there will be some learning on Apple’s part.

    1. applecynic does it again, proves he’s dumber than a box of John Dingler rock art. If you can set your clock to anything, it’s to how much of a leftist teabag sucking dweeb applecynic is. A broken clock is right twice a day – applespaznic can’t even manage that.

        1. At least we know you endlessly simp for Joey, the man who voted with racists and segregationists to keep Blacks segregated from whites. And we can’t count the amount of times you’ve done that.

    2. Cynic, what is your solution? There are only two ways to provide equal safety for both iPhone and Android users. Apple could remove the anti-stalking routines so that iPhone users will be at equal risk. Or Apple could pull the product off the market so that both will be equally safe. Since the Find My network is baked into the hardware, there is no way to extend it to non-Apple devices.

      1. You’re right. But there are other considerations, namely…
        – Apple users are inordinately concerned about whether we worry about getting stalked. The MDN take says this.
        -We will take our own measures regarding stalking over the iOS lock-in.
        -We can choose to use competing products or not use tiles at all.

        Basically… the author was presumptuous. Like articles that say… “Which iPhone will you buy”.

  2. Re: “AirTag is designed to discourage unwanted tracking. If someone else’s AirTag finds its way into your stuff, your iPhone will notice it’s traveling with you and send you an alert. After a while, if you still haven’t found it, the AirTag will start playing a sound to let you know it’s there.”

    If someone else’s AirTag finds its way into your stuff, will your “Android phone” notice that it’s travelling with you and send you an alert? Hmmm.

  3. Doesn’t this “sad” problem for Android users exist for other (not Apple) trackers? And with other (not Apple) trackers, doesn’t this same problem exist for iPhone users too? Apple is mitigating an existing risk of abuse for its own customers who use AirTag and iPhone.

  4. “MacDailyNews Take: If Android settlers actually cared about privacy, they wouldn’t have settled for Android.”

    Damn. I hate to say it but your phone runs a stolen operating system. Kinda makes sense. 😐

      1. Stole Linux? Nay, FreeBSD/Unix…
        “… Much of FreeBSD’s codebase has become an integral part of other operating systems such as Darwin (the basis for macOS, iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, and tvOS)…”

      2. IOS is derived from Darwin, which is derived from BSD UNIX and the Mach kernel. All that software was properly licensed and is not stolen.

        Android runs on the Linux kernel, and “Linux Is Not Unix,” but an open source product engineered to avoid violating UNIX intellectual property rights. Since it is open source, Google did not steal it.

        https://www.androidauthority.com/android-linux-784964/

        Beyond the kernel, both mobile OS systems use massive amounts of proprietary customization.

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