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AirTag use in theft and stalking prompts Apple to update its safety guide

Apple's diminutive trackers have increasingly shown up in news reports around stalking and thefts. The company's updated safety guide includes new information on what to do if you find an unknown AirTag that might be involved in criminal activity.
Written by Michael Gariffo, Staff Writer

Apple updated its Personal Safety User Guide in an attempt to better help customers and potential victims understand what to do if they find an AirTag that may have been placed on their person or vehicle without their permission. 

In recent weeks, a spate of local and national news reports about stalking incidents and auto theft attempts involving AirTags has popped up. The reports typically involve someone finding an unknown AirTag secreted away in a handbag, tucked behind their vehicle's license plate, or stashed somewhere else that will let a thief or stalker track the location of themselves or their vehicle. 

In what was almost certainly an effort to alleviate some of the negative public sentiment toward AirTags being caused by continued reports like this, Apple has updated its Personal Safety User Guide with new advice on what to do if you find an AirTag that may be tracking you for criminal purposes. The refresh was confirmed by an Apple spokesperson speaking with TechCrunch.

While the guide itself isn't exactly new, its availability in website form, as opposed to a downloadable PDF, is. It also now features an expanded "Stay safe with AirTag, and other Find My accessories" section, which includes more detailed steps for dealing with the discovery of an unknown AirTag for both iOS and Android device users.

 Apple didn't go so far as to suggest in the expanded guide that any discovered trackers should be assumed to be tools in criminal activity. Instead, the company couched its advice in the possibility that the AirTag might simply be "attached to an item you are borrowing." 

AirTags are designed to make a sound if they are separated from the Apple device that is registered to track them. This has resulted in many of the unknowing victims involved in these reports discovering the devices being used to track them if they themselves did not own an iPhone. If the user does own an iPhone, they should receive an alert from iOS' built-in Find My app letting them know an unknown AirTag is moving with them. This is a safety feature Apple references in its Personal Safety User Guide and one that was specifically designed to prevent the types of criminal and invasive uses we're talking about here. 

Unfortunately, there are many situations in which the sound emitted by an AirTag may be hard or impossible to detect. The relatively modest chirp let out by the small trackers would be difficult to pick up over the sound of a loud running car, for instance. Apple's unwillingness, so far, to address this issue or offer any possible updates to the behavior of AirTags themselves has frustrated some privacy and safety advocates. 

To be fair, AirTags are far from the only devices that can be used for this purpose, and they are definitely not the first trackers small enough to be hidden on a person or car. Products from Tile, Samsung and other brands with similar tracking capabilities were already available, as were devices from brands like Whistle that could be used to track lost pets. The latter even includes GPS functionality, meaning potential criminals could track their targets in situations where no amenable Bluetooth devices were nearby to help. 

The main reason why Apple's AirTags appear to be getting name-dropped in so many of these reports is the simple fact that the safety feature which Apple integrated to alert potential victims of the presence of an unknown AirTag is doing its job, leading to the discovery of the devices by potential victims. 

None of the trackers mentioned provide those same safety features, and all require the direct intervention of their owners in order to make a sound. As other news outlets have noted, this could well mean that the use of trackers like AirTags in criminal stalking or theft cases has been an ongoing, silent problem for much longer than most of us have realized. If that truly is the case, then it's a situation that must be addressed by not just Apple but the tech industry as a whole. 

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