Apple’s Airtags are compact tracking devices that, under the right circumstances, offer extremely long life and accurate tracking capability. Unlike a GPS tracker, which requires cellular service and can quickly run out of battery power, airtags rely on the distributed "where’s" network to keep track of you?"-Network of iPhones, iPads and Macs, which hundreds of millions of people around the world connect to, and uses Bluetooth LE to make itself known.
While there are a thousand positive and legitimate ways to use an Airtag, it can also be abused if someone is following you without your knowledge, potentially putting you in a dangerous situation. For example, York Police in Canada recently reported that Airtags are placed in hidden locations of publicly parked cars and then tracked to the driver’s residence where the cars were stolen from the driveway.
Incidents like this are rare (York Police stated that there were five out of 2.000 thefts in the region in which airtags were involved). Apple has some safeguards in place so that an iPhone, iPad, and Airtag provide different alerts and information when one of them is with you and the owner who paired the Airtag with their iPhone or iPad is not nearby.
Geoffrey Fowler of The Washington Post and Victoria Song from "Gizmodo" point out that these measures do not seem to be sufficient. While Apple is expected to continue to improve the way Airtags allow us to track our belongings with less risk to our safety, you can already take some extra precautions to reduce the likelihood of unwanted location tracking.
Potential stalking victim
You probably already know if you are a candidate for unwanted location tracking: Someone in your life (or a previous …) or a family member shows up at unexpected times in unexpected places, even though they have no way of knowing where you are, per se. These individuals know of your whereabouts or activities and comment on them in person, via email, or on social media. Or you’re in an awkward relationship or have broken off contact with a parent or family member.
If you are in acute need of help, contact the stalking helpline or your local police, the crime victims association Weiber Ring also helps victims of stalking . However, you can take some precautions from a technical point of view.
To set your devices so that an airtag can’t track you
All individuals whose devices participate in the sharing of secure, privacy-friendly location information about their devices and airtags have opted in to the "where is" feature?"-Network decided. That makes everyone around you a potential participant in tracking an airtag you don’t know about.
However, you can at least opt yourself out, although this will no longer allow you to track your own lost or stolen iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Mac or Airtag through this extended network.
In iOS 13 or iPadOS 14 or newer go to "Settings> Account name> Where is? > Search my iPhone/iPad" and uncheck ‘Where is?’-Network".
In macOS 10.15 Catalina or above go to the Apple ID settings panel, select the iCloud link on the left, click the "Options" button to the right of the ‘Find my Mac’ item and disable "Search offline or "Where is?" (the text varies depending on the macOS version).
If you regularly travel in cities and suburbs or on public transportation, other people’s devices can still capture and share location information via airtags that someone slipped you. This is true even for things as innocuous as stopping at a rest area on the freeway when someone 15 meters away is carrying an iPhone, or even driving on the freeway near other people who have iPhones or iPads connected to a cellular network.
The range of Bluetooth LE is amazing. I found that an Airtag I had temporarily placed in my car, parked two floors below our first floor and about 50 yards from the house, was still providing regular updates about its location on devices in my possession – not to mention those of neighbors walking or driving by.
Use a Bluetooth scanner to find Airtag
Since Airtags regularly emit Bluetooth signals that can be picked up by Apple devices, you can use a simple Bluetooth tracker for iOS or iPadOS to scan the environment and see if an Airtag is nearby. While these tracking apps can’t identify Airtags as such – the Airtag periodically changes its Bluetooth ID so it can’t be tracked itself – the apps do provide an overview of the surrounding area. This includes the names of Bluetooth devices that tag themselves in their transmissions.
BLE Scanner is a functionally limited but free app that provides a list of Bluetooth devices that your iPhone or iPad can detect, and a mapping function that sorts them roughly by signal strength and distance. This is especially useful if you want to check if there’s an airtag hiding in your car, less useful in the home where dozens of your own devices and neighbors’ devices may be found nearby. Normal Bluetooth devices usually identify themselves generically (like my "HP OfficeJet Pro 9010 Series"-Printer) or specific, such as the share names of your Macs, iPhones, iPads, Apple TVs, Fitbit trackers and so on.
Bluetooth BLE Device Finder (free download, starting at $3.99 to unlock the features you need) has the advantage of allowing you to dig deeper into the technical details of Bluetooth, which can provide additional clues as to which devices are legitimate and which are not.
If you can eliminate all known Bluetooth devices, even by turning off devices you’re not sure about, and what’s left has no associated name, it may be worthwhile to look further without the app.
Finding an Airtag that’s been pushed under
Since the Airtag reveals its exact distance only to the owner, it can be used to collect information about you only if it accompanies you. An airtag in a fixed location such as your home, office or classroom gives nothing away to a potential tracker. This reduces the "surface area" unwanted surveillance, because the airtag must be in your clothing, wallet or purse, in another item you carry, or in a vehicle you use exclusively or at least regularly.
If you don’t know what an Airtag looks like: Here’s our in-depth review with pictures . The trackers are slightly larger than a two-euro piece and about three times as thick, with a rounded white top. There is no serial number printed or found inside, but I will describe later how you can get this number using NFC.
Check your pockets: unzip clothing, purses, suitcases, briefcases, and other items and look for an Airtag placed or sewn into them.
Examine the car: a car may have a number of places that are inaccessible or difficult to inspect. Since the Airtag’s battery lasts up to a year, someone could wrap it in cotton (to suppress the beeping, see below), slit a fabric seam, stick it in, and sew it back up again. If you park your car away from houses and stores and use a Bluetooth scanner, you can determine if such a device is hidden in your car.
Even if someone doesn’t have access to your home, work, school or vehicle, and you don’t receive your mail at the address where you live, someone could send you an item with an airtag, and if you take it home, they could track your location. If you fear stalking in this way, you should check any packages you receive elsewhere before bringing them home.
Notifications and alerts to help you along the way
Apple offers two types of notifications to let someone know that there is an Airtag near them that is not linked to their iCloud account. These alerts occur after a period of time or while you are moving and the Airtag is moving with you.
If you have an iPhone or iPad running iOS/iPadOS 14.5 or higher, it will first determine if you are moving from one place to another and have a Bluetooth ID connected to an Airtag. In that case, you will receive a notification about an unknown airtag with additional information after tapping on it. This includes how long this airtag has been traveling with you and what locations your device has transmitted in connection with the airtag.
Apple notes that the most innocuous case is when you’ve borrowed an item from someone with an Airtag attached or inside it. You can find in the "Where is?"-Disable app security alerts for a day or indefinitely if you are in a family share with the owner. You can also play a sound in the app.
The Bluetooth ID, from an Airtag and all Apple devices in the "Where’s?"-Network, however, it changes periodically to prevent it from becoming an object of tracking: If it were permanent, someone could track your devices using the "anonymous" Bluetooth ID tracking. This means that over a relatively short period of time your iPhone or iPad must notice that an airtag is wandering with it.
Secondly, an airtag gives after what Apple calls an "extended period of time" designated absence from its paired iPhone or iPad, which the company says is three days, will beep when it is moved. If you hear an unexpected beep from an item you’re carrying or that’s in your vehicle, it’s time to start looking for an airtag.
The audible alert is less useful than you might hope. If a stalker or other surveillance person comes within range of the Airtag at least once every three days and knows you don’t have an iPhone or iPad with the version 14.Have 5 or higher, he can reset the counter. The beep is not persistent or particularly loud and can be muted without significantly blocking the Bluetooth signal.
How to get the serial number of an airtag and how to deactivate it
When you find an airtag, you can find out more information about it without the person who placed it knowing you did so. The Airtag has NFC, which is useful both for initially pairing the device and for getting a URL from the device through a smartphone or tablet with an NFC reader. This includes Android phones and other devices, as an industry standard is used for NFC encoding. The URL opens a page with the serial number of the Airtag. This page can also display a phone number set by the owner if he has marked the device as lost. The owner is not notified in any way that the page is loading, and Apple preserves the owner’s privacy by not directly linking it.
However, in the event of unwanted tracking, the serial number can be helpful if you want to take civil action, obtain a restraining order, or contact law enforcement. Since Airtag tracking requires device pairing, an iCloud account, and an iPhone or iPad logged into the account, anyone actively tracking you also creates a trail of information stored on their phone, mobile network, and other locations.
Apple uses end-to-end encryption to protect the location information sent from any device to an iPhone, iPad or Mac running the app "Where is?" Must use to view it. But the information is not secured on the device in the same way. Police and national investigators would be able to establish a strong link between logins and access and prove that an airtag was paired with a specific iPhone or iPad. This could somewhat deter abusers and others if they know how easily they can be traced.
Once you find the airtag and get the information you want, you don’t need a hammer or a rock to disable it. Unlike most Apple devices, the Airtag comes with a removable battery. Simply turn the metal plate on the bottom counterclockwise (from top right to top left) to remove it, then remove the battery.