In detective and spy shows from the ’60s and ’70s, frequently the bad guys or the good guys employed a “tracking device.” With these, they could monitor where a person or vehicle was and move the plot along. This was science-fiction until the Global Positioning System (GPS) became available to the general public (see my article in the Crozet Gazette, March 2020). Today, there are several ways for anyone to do this. Should you worry?
In addition to the GPS feature in every smartphone, there are products that enable you to find pretty much anything. By attaching a small device to the thing you want to keep track of, and connecting to an app or website, you can uncover where the deuce you left your keys this time. These gizmos have been around for a while. Tile makes one that you put on your keyring and can play a sound to help you find it, or report where it was last in sight. It uses Bluetooth technology to do this, so it needs to be in range (about 35 feet) to work. However, if others around you also have Tiles, then your coverage is expanded.
Now comes a newer technology that utilizes other networks in addition to Bluetooth to locate a device. The Apple AirTag (and similar devices for Android, like the Samsung Galaxy SmartTag) utilize the same “crowd-network” idea as Tile. Because they take advantage of the much larger number of Apple (or Android) phones (many more people have a modern smartphone than have a Tile) your coverage area is larger. Buy an AirTag or the like, set it up in the Find My app on your phone or tablet, attach the AirTag to your keyring and you’re set. Keys missing? Call up the app and see if they are on your dresser or if you dropped them in the parking garage at work.
However, if someone else (without your knowledge) puts an AirTag in your car, coat or purse, they can theoretically track your movements with their phone. Apple has built in precautions against this, and they say they will be enhancing the precautions in the future. Any AirTag that is separated from its owner for more than 8 hours should play a sound. Unknown AirTags are supposed to pop up a warning on your phone that “an unknown device is following you.” Of course, it’s possible that the AirTag was lost. The owner of it has an option in the iPhone app to “mark it lost.” If they do this, and you tap the alert you receive about it, you’ll see information on its owner.
How can you protect yourself? The very comprehensive webpage at the Apple Support site (https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT212227) tells you how to make sure. Samsung has incorporated similar protections for users of their Galaxy SmartTags (search for Unknown Tag Search and SmartThings).
Is this a wide-spread invasion of privacy? No. The number of reported cases worldwide is still below 100. However, it can’t hurt to be aware of the issue and take reasonable precautions.