KATE EMERY: Is big tech making it too easy to stalk someone? I did it with this $49 device

Kate Emery
The Nightly
4 Min Read
Before I slipped an Apple AirTag into the pocket of his pants, I asked him to take part in an experiment.
Before I slipped an Apple AirTag into the pocket of his pants, I asked him to take part in an experiment. Credit: Supplied./TensorSpark - stock.adobe.com

The important thing to know before I explain why I stalked my husband is that he knew all about it.

Before I slipped an Apple AirTag into the pocket of his pants, I asked him to take part in an experiment to see how easy — or hard — it was to stalk someone using a $49 bit of technology available at any electronics store.

He warned me I was in for the most boring stake-out of my life.

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AirTags aren’t supposed to be used for stalking. They’re marketed as the handy device that means you’ll never lose your keys or wallet again.

But they keep popping up in stalking cases, like that of Brooks Nader, the swimsuit model who says a stranger slipped an AirTag into her coat pocket and followed her for hours.

In Perth last year a man accused his ex-wife of using an AirTag to track him. The charges were ultimately dismissed: she said was keeping tabs on their young daughter instead.

Just last week in San Francisco, Apple lost a bid to dismiss a class-action lawsuit essentially alleging the tech giant is responsible for the devices being used to hunt down not errant keys but people.

Apple says the AirTags come with security measures intended to make life harder for stalkers. But do they work?

That was the question I wanted to answer.

Nobody using AirTags could claim they don’t know it’s illegal to use them to stalk someone. Not unless they’re the first person in the world to sign off on a tech agreement without reading it, anyway.

Setting up my AirTag — a plastic disc roughly the size of a 20 cent piece, but fatter — so I can find it with my phone requires acknowledging a warning that it is “intended solely to track items that belong to you”.

“Using AirTag to track people without their consent is a crime in many regions around the world,” my phone warns me. “AirTag is designed to be detected by victims and to enable law enforcement to request identifying information about the owner.”

Well-intentioned and roughly as helpful as putting a warning on a gun that it’s not to be used for murder, or making everyone who boards a plane check a box to confirm they won’t commit a hijacking.

AirTags work by sending out an encrypted Bluetooth signal that can be detected, and so triangulated, by other people’s devices. It sounds a lot like magic to me but I’m not confident I could explain how my TV works either.

Tracking my husband is as simple as checking my iPhone’s Find My app, which shows he’s where he’s supposed to be: en route to the office. Later he goes to the coffee shop and — a moment of excitement — a different office. Possibly he forgets about the AirTag because, when I call to ask what he’s up to in Forrestfield, he seems surprised. (Who said stalking can’t inject a touch of whimsy into a long term relationship?)

One major roadblock for wannabe AirTag stalkers is that people who’ve been unknowingly tagged are supposed to get a pop-up warning on their phone, alerting them to its presence.

If my husband carried a bag to work or wore a coat with pockets, the AirTag might easily have gone unnoticed.

According to Apple’s website: “If someone else’s AirTag finds its way into your stuff, your iPhone will notice it’s travelling with you and send you an alert. After a while, if you still haven’t found it, the AirTag will start playing a sound to let you know it’s there.”

Good in theory, not in practice.

Although my husband is an iPhone user — Android phones apparently don’t automatically get a warning, which is a whole other problem — he receives no alerts until he puts his phone in the same pocket as the device, so the two are touching.

Only then does he get a pop-up warning: “Website NFC Tag” with a link to the Apple website, which warns him about the AirTag.

If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you might dismiss it as spam.

If my husband carried a bag to work or wore a coat with pockets, the AirTag might easily have gone unnoticed.

Apple declined to answer specific questions about whether it was doing enough to deter stalkers. Instead, I was directed to their website, which details how Apple works with law enforcement (AirTags have serial numbers, which can be used to identify a stalker), current and proposed security measures and a reassuring message that incidents of AirTags being misused were rare.

Apple and Google have reportedly come up with a joint plan, albeit one yet to be realised, that would allow location-tracking devices like AirTags to be compatible across Apple and Android phones, making it easier to alert victims.

Nothing about the tone of this column is intended to minimise the serious crime of stalking, which is an act of violence itself, but can also be a precursor to physical violence. There’s nothing charming or acceptable about tracking someone without their knowledge or consent, whatever certain problematic romantic comedies would have you believe.

What this column is intended to highlight is that tech companies — Apple’s AirTags aren’t the only product that can be used this way, they’re just the most popular — need to do more.

Nobody with $49 in the bank and such minimal tech know-how that she doesn’t understand how a TV works should find it this easy to stalk anyone.

If you or someone you know is being stalked, call police immediately.



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