Apple AirTags are little tracking devices that cost about $30 dollars and can be attached to anything to help you locate missing items. They’re a little larger than a quarter and can help you track anything from your lost car keys to your luggage.
Unfortunately, as NBC 10 Boston found through a public records request, these devices have also been used to track people without their knowledge.
"She kept going to the police. And she kept saying, but I'm being tracked. This person is showing up here and they were like we just don't know," said Diana Mancera, director of memberships and programs at Jane Doe Inc, the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.
She said a victim of domestic violence came to one of their member programs last year worried that her abuser kept showing up wherever she was. Mancera said it took two to three months before they discovered that the victim was being tracked by an AirTag.
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"During one of the custody meetings that they had, the abuser put an AirTag on the backpack of the children," Mancera said.
Part of her role at Jane Doe is to help run the tech safety initiative. Mancera trains local outreach groups how to educate victims about different ways they could be tracked through technology.
"So if someone wants to continue to have power and control over someone, they will do whatever it takes to do it," she said.
Through public records requests, we found over 20 police incident reports just this year in the greater Boston area where phones were alerted that they were being tracked by an Apple AirTag. That’s on top of eight cases that weren’t released because they involved domestic violence.
NBC10 Boston found at least two dozen cases in the Greater Boston area where phones were alerted that they were being tracked by an Apple AirTag
On January 14, an East Boston woman was alerted that an AirTag was tracking her from her work to her home. When she pushed the button to make the device make a sound, she located the AirTag stuck to the bottom of an electric scooter with a "black adhesion compound."
On April 10, a Brockton woman was alerted that she was being tracked by an AirTag and that her location could be seen by the owner. She found the AirTag on her vehicle attached by a magnetic storage box.
On April 19, a Malden woman was alerted to being tracked from her gym to her home. She told the police officer her purse was left unattended in an unlocked locker at the gym. When she triggered the AirTag to play a sound she discovered a small hole was cut in the lining of her purse and the AirTag was at the bottom of the purse between the fabric.
Apple put out a statement in February addressing complaints of unwanted tracking.
"AirTag was designed to help people locate their personal belongings, not to track people or another person’s property, and we condemn in the strongest possible terms any malicious use of our products. Unwanted tracking has long been a societal problem, and we took this concern seriously in the design of AirTag. It’s why the Find My network is built with privacy in mind, uses end-to-end encryption, and why we innovated with the first-ever proactive system to alert you of unwanted tracking. We hope this starts an industry trend for others to also provide these sorts of proactive warnings in their products."
The statement announced a series of advancements to the AirTags and the find my network which would alert users to unwanted tracking.
A spokesperson from Apple wanted to point out features that were introduced with the iOS 15.4 update in March.
- New privacy warnings during AirTag setup: In an upcoming software update, every user setting up their AirTag for the first time will see a message that clearly states that AirTag is meant to track their own belongings, that using AirTag to track people without consent is a crime in many regions around the world, that AirTag is designed to be detected by victims, and that law enforcement can request identifying information about the owner of the AirTag.
- Addressing alert issues for AirPods: We’ve heard from users who have reported receiving an “Unknown Accessory Detected” alert. We’ve confirmed this alert will not display if an AirTag is detected near you — only AirPods (3rd generation), AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, or a third-party Find My network accessory. In the same software update, we will be updating the alert users receive to indicate that AirPods have been traveling with them instead of an “Unknown Accessory.”
Apple wasn’t the first company to create this type of affordable tracking device, but AirTags were the first device to alert people that they are being tracked.
Tile, another tracking device that pre-dates the AirTag, released its own anti-stalking update to its mobile app back in March.
How to set up your phone to get alerts if you are being tracked
Apple created a webpage that lists tips on what to do if your phone is alerted to being tracked by an AirTag or similar device. They also have tips on which settings in your iPhone need to be on to make sure you’re alerted.
We decided to try out the alert system by purchasing some AirTags and letting them track NBC 10 Boston producers.
It was 50 minutes after one producer left work and arrived home that her iPhone alerted that she was being tracked by an AirTag. It included a map that showed the route she traveled.
For another producer, his AirTag played a sound in his vehicle door one day after being placed there. It took two days for his iPhone to finally be alerted.
"I think what concerns me the most is that we know about this because Apple is the one that actually put ways of detecting if they were used for stalking someone. But there's a lot of other devices that do not do that," said Andres Arrietta from the Electronic Frontier Foundation
Arrietta said Bluetooth tracking devices are part of a bigger problem. If you’re one of the millions of Android smartphone users, you need to download an app to detect AirTags or similar tracking devices.
"What we need is a standard and it should be part of both Android and iOS, that they just can offer all of these devices so the users don't have to worry and take all these steps to protect their safety," said Arrietta.
Mancera said if you get alerted that you’re being tracked by the AirTag or another tracking device, it’s important to actually find the AirTag. In the majority of the incident reports we found, no AirTag or device was found.
"And usually what I say to victims as well as advocates, the work with the survivors is, 'trust your gut,'" said Mancera “If your gut is telling you that someone is tracking you and then knows all your whereabouts, something's happening."
She said oftentimes it's not necessarily tracking devices being used to track people. She mentions other things like social media or checking location settings when you take a picture.
It was recently reported by the Wall Street Journal that there have been recently a number of false alarms when it comes to AirTag alerts.
In order for your iPhone to alert you to being tracked, you need to make sure location settings are turned on as well as turning on the Find My app. You also need to make sure Bluetooth is turned on.
You can make sure your tracking alerts are on by going into the Find My app, clicking on "Me" and turning on "Tracking Notifications."
If you don’t have an iPhone, you can download the “Tracking Detect” app in the Google Play store. That app will allow you to scan for AirTags and similar devices that work with the Find My app.
If you’re a victim of domestic violence or know someone who is you can call the Safelink statewide hotline at: 1-877-785-2020, or you can visit the Jane Doe Inc members page to find an outreach group near you.
You can also contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or by visiting www.thehotline.org or texting LOVEIS to 22522.