Apple Air Tag. The famous Apple tracker. It has even been used to harass a Sports Illustrated model. By thieves to track cars to your home or a place where they can be easily stolen. Could any of us be tracked too?
If you’re like me, you’ve probably been worried about the headlines in the top paragraph. But since many headlines can be exaggerated, I decided to experiment with an AirTag for myself. How easy would it be for me to track my wife and kids with an Apple AirTag? I set out to check it out so I could tell you.
Just to be clear: I’m an Android user and have been using Tile devices for some time.
I ruled out the possibility of Tile being a big threat, as my experience with Tile was more “not working” than “working”. How can a technology that can’t find my lost portable SSD inside my house be used to track someone 20 miles away?
Still, I decided to include a Tile Pro (a 2020 model with a new battery) and a shiny new AirTag in my tests. I did this with my family’s knowledge, and also tracked them through a phone-based GPS tracking app to compare to what I was seeing on the Tile app and Apple Find My.
Before going too far, let’s understand how the AirTag and Tile Pro work. Both are very simple devices that emit a Bluetooth beacon every few minutes via radio frequencies. That beacon reports the last location of the phone, tablet, or IoT device to which it has made ping
In the case of Tile, any other phone running the Tile app or any Amazon Sidewalk device (Echo, etc.) will report if it has received the beacon and pass on the information.
The AirTag does the same thing, but with the key difference that there are a billion iOS devices it can be done to. ping. Trackers do NOT contain GPS locators, but rather are based on the location of the phone or Amazon Sidewalk device.
There is also a high-precision, short-range pinpoint feature on newer trackers, but only when very close to the tag. Most of the coarse location information is done via Bluetooth.
With all of this out of the way, I tracked down my family with my AirTag and Tile Pro in a variety of scenarios.
Tracking Device: Nearly Useless
For my tests, I ran them with the trackers inside the car in a cup holder. And also glued to the bumper to simulate my lifelong fantasy of being PI Jim Rockford following someone.
I’ve actually tried following someone the old-fashioned way as a reporter and lost them in a few minutes. If he had put an AirTag or Tile Pro in his car, it wouldn’t have helped me.
The AirTag and Tile Pro just don’t update information often enough or contact other devices at the right time to be useful.
When the location is updated, it is often so far out of date that the real person could be a mile or several miles away. Also, at highway speeds, most of the time you won’t get any updates.
Tracking you home: Scary, effective
Actively tracking you at highway speeds doesn’t make sense, but if all someone wants to know is where you live, Apple’s AirTag is frighteningly effective.
But sure enough, so is the Tile Pro. Once again, my experience with my Tile Pros has been more or less spot on when it comes to finding lost things around my house. So I was quite surprised to see that the Tile Pro works reasonably well as a tracking device.
I expected Tile’s porous network to be so inefficient that Tile Pro didn’t provide any useful information. For example, within a 20-mile radius of my metro home, the app reports approximately 5,000 Tile users. That’s 5,000 people using the app who can spot a lost Tile in a city of 400,000 people.
It’s not much, but its partnership with Amazon seems to have made a difference. Any Echo or Amazon doorbell, security camera, or other Bluetooth-enabled device can also detect the Tile and report its last location.
It works well enough that it looks like a Tile Pro planted in your car could at least locate someone within a few blocks of you. In my tests, the Tile Pro was located at a neighbor’s house 150 meters away.
I’m sure Apple’s AirTag could track you a house or two from wherever you end up thanks to the massive network of iPhones. Find My, for example, reported that my AirTag was inside the neighboring house, where I know the occupants use iPhones.
As a way to stalk someone walking by: Terrifyingly effective
The Sports Illustrated model who was tracked down said the culprit attached an AirTag to her jacket to track her home. To simulate that experience, I placed both the Tile Pro and the AirTag in my daughter’s backpack and watched her move.
The Tile Pro, again, did much better than I expected in a dense metropolitan area where there are plenty of Amazon Sidewalk devices and Tile phones. But it still paled in comparison to the AirTag, which gave me updates on my daughter’s location that allowed me to pinpoint her location to within 25 to 50 feet and seemingly updated every time I checked.
The reason? My daughter has a Tile, but the app is no longer active because she got frustrated that it didn’t work. If I had the Tile app running, the location updates might have been better. But she uses an iPhone that the AirTag would use to update her location.
Again: An AirTag does not have GPS. It relies on your phone to inform you of your location. In a dense area, it’s unlikely you’ll be out of radio range of an iPhone reporting the AirTag’s last location.
This is scary, Apple (and Tile) have to do something.
After seeing how frighteningly effective AirTag (and, to some extent, Tile) is, you’d think I’d be in favor of Apple further weakening its use. In fact, some would probably call for the technology to be banned.
It’s an understandable knee-jerk reaction many people would have after seeing the latest 60-second newscast or a story in the paper about an AirTag “used to follow someone home!” These occurrences are not to be taken lightly and are a legitimate problem.
But they are also legitimately criminal activities. Many states have laws that prevent the electronic tracking of a person without their knowledge. I recommend that you read Macworld’s excellent guide on how to find and neutralize unwanted AirTags that may be tracking you.
However, after a few days of reflection, I have realized that the AirTag is much more useful as a tool that works in your favor in the event of a crime, rather than being used against you.
The latest FBI crime statistics report that 721,885 cars were stolen in 2019. The National Insurance Crime Bureau shows that 53,111 motorcycles were stolen in 2020.
Your chances of recovering a stolen car seem to range from 50 to 80 percent, depending on the state and the reporting organization. Recovering a stolen motorcycle is also quite rare. Stolen bike or lawnmower? Forget about it.
What I do know from living in a high-crime metropolitan city is that stolen cars end up being scrapped for parts, lodged against a running board, or left in an area where someone else decides to scrap them for parts or use them. like bathroom.
If you’re lucky, it sits on the street until it racks up enough tickets and a towing agency takes it away, leaving you to pay several thousand dollars in impound fees.
You may get your Creedence Clearwater Revival tape back, but in the end, the odds of getting your car back – especially on time – are dire. You could pay a few hundred dollars for a great system like a LoJack, but are you really going to LoJack a clunker?
But for the low price of $29, you can basically tag your car, bike, motorcycle, outdoor grill, or generator and locate it in case it gets “lost.”
In fact, it is already popular to tag pets with AirTags to locate them if they escape. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind if someone figured out a way to make an AirTag withstand the heat of a catalytic converter so I could tell the police about thieves and the location of stores that buy those stolen catalytic converters.
Apple and Tile are likely uncomfortable with using the trackers in this way, as they’re always thinking about the liability that could fall on them.
Apple has already made some changes to start fixing AirTag harassment issues, and those improvements could end in iOS 15.4 very soon. Good. I don’t care what Apple or Tile think though, because despite months of scary headlines – this one included – I’ve come to realize that AirTag and Tile are very powerful tools that can also be used for good, and not just for the bad
Original article published in English on our sister website PCWorld USA.