Privacy and security / June 19, 2023

AirTags, Tiles and SmartTags, oh my!

Nimmi Kanji

Nimmi Kanji

Director - Social Purpose Programs, For Good and TELUS Wise

Woman with luggage walking outdoors

In 2021, Apple launched the AirTag, with the simple promise of, “lose your knack for losing things.” Priced at only $39 CDN, Air Tags quickly became a popular way to keep track of easy-to-lose items like keys, backpacks and luggage (remember the airport baggage claim chaos of 2022?).

Other tech giants jumped on the Bluetooth tagging bandwagon. Products including Samsung’s Galaxy SmartTag and Life 360’s Tile gained popularity. While these “tags” seemed like an ingenious way to track things, like any technology advance, people figured out ways to use them for malicious purposes.

Why tags are great

You’ll never have to ask, “where did I put my keys?” again. Affordable and inconspicuous, Bluetooth tags can be attached to or enclosed in items that are easily misplaced.

In the case of Apple’s Air Tags, the tags use Bluetooth and NFC technology to communicate anonymously and securely with nearby iPhones in the crowdsourced Find My network (which according to Forbes, includes nearly one billion iOS devices around the world). The Air Tag sends its location to iCloud, and users can view it on a map with the Find My app.

What are the risks?

Justin Cappos, associate professor of Computer Science and Engineering at New York University Tandon School of Engineering and a member of New York University’s Center for Cybersecurity, summed the risks up succinctly in a January 2023 CNBC article. “You have something (where) its intended use and its malicious use are almost identical.”

Bluetooth tagging devices were designed to track things. Not people. But unfortunately, several stalking crimes have been reported using Bluetooth tagging devices.

Criminals are also finding ways to use Bluetooth tagging devices to enable car thefts. For instance, according to York Regional Police in Ontario, between September 2021 and December 2021, there were five reported incidents where suspects placed small tracking devices on high end vehicles while they were parked in public places. The thieves were then able to track the vehicles to the victims’ residences and steal them out of the driveways.

Action being taken

While all tag manufacturers are transparent about the intended safe use of their products, they are taking steps to enable early warning and detection.

Apple has introduced a new privacy warning during AirTag set up. The company is also working with law enforcement to track AirTags back to perpetrators. Forbes detailed some of the enhanced detection capabilities that Apple added in 2021 including:

  • For iPhone 11 or later: Apple’s Precision Finding App guides users to an unknown AirTag
  • For iOS 14.5 or later: AirTags can be recognized when a user arrives home (if the proper information is filled out in Apple My Card contact section and location services are turned on); unwanted AirTags can also be detected at locations users frequent often (i.e. gym, work)

Samsung and Tile have also launched their own detection measures. Samsung’s SmartThings Find feature in the SmartThings app allows Galaxy users to locate lost phones and scan for unknown SmartTags near them. Life 360 offers Scan and Secure, enabling iOS and Android devices to detect Tiles or Tile-enabled devices nearby.

Most promising is a May 2023 announcement from Apple and Google detailing the submission of a proposed, first-of-its-kind industry specification designed to combat the misuse of Bluetooth location-tracking devices for unwanted tracking.

Ron Huang, Apple’s vice president of Sensing and Connectivity commented on the collaboration stating, “This new industry specification builds upon the AirTag protections, and through collaboration with Google results in a critical step forward to help combat unwanted tracking across iOS and Android.”

Bluetooth tagging devices have been a great innovation in helping people keep track of both prized and essential possessions. They’ve definitely changed the game for travelers. When carry on just isn’t possible, travelers can track their checked luggage to avoid the dreaded lost bag. While Bluetooth tagging devices offer many benefits, it’s also important to be aware of how this great technology is being misused. Knowledge is the best way to avoid falling victim to people with harmful intentions.

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