Apple AirTags, touted as a way to find lost keys, purses, also are being used by stalkers
Millions of the trackers have been sold since they were introduced last year. And reports to the Chicago Police Department of unwanted surveillance or stalking using them soon began.
Apple AirTags — introduced last year as an easy way to track down lost keys or wallets — are being used to secretly keep unwanted tabs on and stalk people, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
Between July 1, 2021, and March 31, people filed 33 reports with the Chicago Police Department saying AirTags were used to track their movements via a Bluetooth antenna without them knowing, the police records show.
In one case typical of the complaints about the popular tracking devices, a South Side woman told the police in March that an ex-boyfriend “has placed an Apple AirTag on” her sport-utility vehicle.
“Offender has shown up at church, at Petco, at the nail salon, at a park and at a friend’s house,” the report says of the man, who also was caught on a home security camera vandalizing her vehicle.
Americans have bought millions of AirTags since Apple first offered them for sale last year. And reports to the Chicago police of unwanted surveillance or stalking using AirTags followed from all corners of the city:
- A Lincoln Square woman got a notification on her iPhone that there was an AirTag in her vicinity “and has since found three Apple AirTag tracking devices that had been mounted underneath” her car, according to a police report in January. It said her estranged husband, against whom she had an order of protection, showed up at her new home and workplace “even though [she] has never told [him] where she is living or where her new job is.”
- In March, a Bronzeville woman reported getting threatening calls from an ex-boyfriend, including 21 in a single day. She “located an AirTag GPS device that pings in her vehicle’s muffler,” a police report said. The police advised her on how to reinstate an order of protection that recently expired and get to safety: “Victim self-relocated from her residence to a hotel.”
- In East Garfield Park last July, a woman reported being “in fear of” getting killed after searching for her lost AirPods and noticing an unfamiliar device on her Apple “Find My” app. The police discovered an AirTag had been glued onto her car near the rear wheel arch. “Victim stated she has an order of protection against her ex-boyfriend,” according to a police report that said she had a previous unwanted encounter with him recently. “She was wondering how her ex-boyfriend was tracking her.”
Domestic violence experts say the tracking devices, which cost $29 and are the size of a half-dollar coin, are an easy way for abusers to exert power and control over a woman.
Typically, an abuser “wants to know where she is all the time,” says Rebecca Weininger, director of the North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic’s domestic violence practice. “All of this is to justify the abuse — the power and control that he already feels entitled to.”
The Chicago police reports mirror what an investigation last month by Vice.com’s tech site Motherboard found in other cities nationwide.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms any malicious use of our products,” Apple says in response to questions about AirTags being used for stalking.
The company also points to features it has created to help block people from misusing AirTags. They have a notification feature that alerts nearby iPhone users when an AirTag is following them. The devices also chime when separated from their owners, starting after eight hours, offering another chance for people to realize they’re being tracked, the company says.
Android users can download Apple’s free Tracker Detect app, which notifies them when an unwanted AirTag is nearby.
The company says it’s willing to work with police to identify Apple IDs that are paired with AirTags used in stalking cases. It’s also planning more safety features soon, a spokeswoman says.
Weininger says AirTags are part of a range of ways people are abusing technology, including the use of GPS trackers, doorbell cameras and even old, shared cloud-storage accounts, which contain data about where and when new photos are created, potentially revealing information about a person’s whereabouts.
The legal clinic had a client whose abuser moved out but used the password for the smart home system to shut off her heat during the winter.
Rebecca Darr, president and chief executive officer of WINGS, a not-for-profit agency that provides emergency shelter and transitional housing for domestic violence victims, says the police reports tell a familiar story regarding what she calls “‘I’m watching you’ behavior. The intent is to make them feel violated and intimidated.”
The Sun-Times reviewed Chicago police reports that mentioned AirTags. They weren’t all about stalking or potential domestic abuse. Some people reported that the devices had helped them locate stolen property. In one case, a man whose Dodge Charger had been stolen in Chatham tracked and recovered it in Englewood using its AirTag.
Jon Callas, director of technology projects for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates on issues including digital privacy, says he recently used an AirTag to track his lost luggage.
“It was both hilarious and slightly alarming that I could tell an awful lot about where my misplaced bag was,” Callas says — including watching it sit for 20 minutes near a Starbucks, presumably as the driver got a coffee.
Callas credits Apple for adding features to warn potential stalking victims but says it’s not enough.
“The mitigations are inadequate,” he says. “They have improved them. And we expect them to improve them more.”
Ilana Forbes, a lawyer with the north suburban legal clinic, says Apple’s faster warning chime and the app for Android users are “a step in the right direction.” But she says that, by the time someone gets a notification, a stalker might already know where she lives or works.
Advocates for victims of domestic abuse have long talked about how important it is to have a safety plan that includes an email address and phone that can’t be monitored.
Now, they have one more thing to warn them about, says Carol Gall, executive director of Sarah’s Inn, a nonprofit serving domestic violence victims in Chicago and the west suburbs.
“Technology is a big piece of that,” Gall says. “And it’s ever-changing.”