Apple Announces AirTag Updates to Address Unwanted Tracking
In an upcoming software update, Apple plans to implement new privacy warnings that will show up during AirTag setup to thwart malicious use. The warning will make it clear that the AirTag is linked to an Apple ID, that using it to track people is a crime, and that law enforcement can request identifying information about the owner of the AirTag. Apple says that the language of the alert could change slightly, but it will basically convey the following information:
AirTag is Linked to Your Apple ID. AirTag 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. AirTag is designed to be detected by victims and to enable law enforcement to request identifying information about the owner.
Apple is also going to fix a bug that was causing confusion around unwanted tracking. AirPods can cause an "Unknown Accessory Alert" warning that some people were interpreting as a notice from an AirTag. AirTags are not able to display the "Unknown Accessory Detected" messaging, which is caused by AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, third-generation AirPods, and in some cases, a Find My network accessory.
In the upcoming software update, AirPods will properly identify themselves so people will no longer see the confusing "Unknown Accessory" messaging.
Along with making these software updates, Apple is updating its Unwanted Tracking support article to provide more information on the safety features built into AirTag, AirPods, and Find My network accessories. There are expanded explanations on which accessories can trigger an unwanted tracking alert, visuals on what those alerts look like, and more detailed information on what users should do after receiving such an alert.
The documentation is much more detailed than the prior support information, and it also includes links to resources that people can use if they feel their safety is at risk as well as clear instructions on finding and disabling an AirTag.
While these are the immediate changes that Apple is making, Apple is also working on new safety features set to be implemented later this year. Precision Finding, improved display alerts, and louder sounds will make AirTags more difficult to use for people-tracking purposes.
- Precision Finding - iPhone 11, iPhone 12, and iPhone 13 users who receive an unwanted tracking alert can locate an unknown AirTag with precision, similar to the Precision Finding feature that's available to AirTag owners. The feature will provide the distance and direction to an unknown AirTag when it is in range, making it easier to locate.
- Display alert with sound - When an AirTag separated from its owner plays a sound to alert those nearby, it will also display an alert on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch so that it can be tracked down by sound or Precision Finding if the feature is available. Apple says that this feature will help if the AirTag sound is hard to hear or if the speaker has been tampered with.
- Updated unwanted tracking alerts - Apple is going to update its alert system to notify users earlier that an unknown AirTag or Find My network accessory may be traveling with them.
- Louder AirTag sound - When an iOS user receives an unwanted tracking alert, they can cause the AirTag to play a sound to make it easier to track down. Apple is going to adjust the tone sequence to use more of the loudest tones to make AirTags louder and easier to find.
There is no specific timeline for when these new features might be released, but Apple has them in the works for later in 2022. These updates are designed for Apple product users, and Apple has nothing to announce on the Android front today.
In addition to announcing updates to AirTags, Apple explained that AirTags privacy has always been a priority. Unwanted tracking "has long been a societal problem," according to Apple, which is why AirTags were initially built with privacy in mind with the "first-ever proactive system" designed to provide unwanted tracking alerts.
Apple says that it is listening to user feedback and innovating to make continued improvements to prevent unwanted tracking, so there could be additional changes happening in the future, including for Android users.
Unwanted AirTag tracking has not gone under Apple's radar, and the company said that it has been working with law enforcement in situations where AirTags are used for malicious purposes. Every AirTag has a unique serial number and AirTags are associated with an Apple ID. Apple is able to provide paired account details when requested by law enforcement, and it has indeed partnered with the police on cases where the information Apple offered was able to trace an AirTag back to the perpetrator, who was apprehended and charged.
Apple has been "actively working" with law enforcement on all AirTag-related requests that it has received. The company says that based on discussions with law enforcement, "incidents of AirTag misuse are rare," but even one instance is too many.
Both the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the National Center for Victims of Crime have said that Apple's safety system is raising awareness of unwanted tracking and starting a conversation about victim safety. From Erica Olsen, director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence:
The alerts system Apple has notifying potential victims of any unwanted tracking has helped shine a light on a problem that existed long before AirTags came on the market. We are happy Apple is engaging in the conversation about victim safety and are continuing to improve safeguards. We hope others will follow their lead.
Since AirTags were released last April, there have been a growing number of news stories about the AirTags being used for stalking people or stealing items like cars through the tracking features. Apple has been criticized for a safety system that does not go far enough in protecting users, especially those who do not have Apple devices. Apple has in response already made several changes to the way that AirTags operate and released an app for Android users that scans for nearby AirTags, and hopefully the changes coming later this year will further deter the use of AirTags for unwanted tracking.