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Apple plans to make finding unwanted AirTags easier

Apple lays out steps it's taking to address privacy and safety issues related to AirTags, following reports that the devices have been used for malicious and criminal activity,
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Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Staff Writer on
Apple AirTags
Apple

Apple on Thursday laid out a series of steps it's taking to address privacy and safety issues related to AirTags, following reports that the devices have been used for malicious and criminal activity. 

Some of the more significant changes will come later this year. Apple plans to alert users more quickly when an unwanted device may be traveling with them and also plans to make it easier to find those devices with louder tones and precision finding. 

With precision finding, iPhone 11, iPhone 12, and iPhone 13 users will be able to see the distance and direction to an unknown AirTag when it is in range. The feature relies on input from the phone's camera, ARKit, accelerometer, and gyroscope. 

In the meantime, Apple is taking more incremental steps to address the problem. First, in an upcoming software update, users setting up their AirTags for the first time will see a new privacy warning. The new message states that using AirTags to track people without consent can be a crime, that the AirTag is designed to be detected by victims, and that law enforcement can request identifying information about the owner of the AirTag.

Apple said it's been "actively working with law enforcement on all AirTag-related requests [it has] received," providing user information in response to subpoenas or valid requests. 

The company is also updating the alert users receive when possibly unwanted AirPods have been traveling with them. Instead of receiving an "unknown accessory" alert, users will receive a message that AirPods are traveling with them. 

Also: How tech is a weapon in modern domestic abuse -- and how to protect yourself

Lastly, Apple is updating its unwanted tracking support article to communicate the safety features built into AirTags, AirPods, and Find My network accessories. 

This isn't the first time Apple has acknowledged problems associated with AirTags. Just last month, the company updated its Personal Safety User Guide in an attempt to better help customers and potential victims understand what to do if they find an unwanted AirTag.

The update followed a spate of local and national news reports about stalking incidents and auto theft attempts involving AirTags. 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 help a criminal track their location.

While Apple is starting to address the issue, there are more significant steps they could take to protect consumers, as Adrian Kingsley-Hughes recently noted on ZDNet. As he suggested, Apple could work with Google to bring comprehensive tag tracking to both iOS and Android. Additionally, he said, Apple could make it harder to modify AirTags. 

Meanwhile, as ZDNet's Michael Gariffo noted, this problem isn't strictly about Apple devices. Products fromTile,Samsung, and other brands with similar tracking capabilities, including devices to track lost pets, could be used for malicious purposes.

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