IIn March this year, Laura (pseudonym) was in her car when a notification appeared on her phone, warning her that an Apple AirTag had been detected nearby. “I didn’t know what it was or what it meant. I felt pretty freaked out,” she says. “I stopped and still didn’t know what I was looking at. My phone showed a map of where I was with a trail of red dots indicating the route I had just taken. I think I was in shock. I went straight to a friend’s house and we searched the car.
They emptied the glove box, opened the hood, checked underneath and then behind the license plate. “Eventually we found it under the rug in the back – a little gadget the size of a 10 pence coin. I didn’t want it near my house.
To Laura, it was obvious how it had come to this. She had recently split from her partner, but he had spent the previous day with their young son – and had moved his child seat from his car to Laura’s back seat when he dropped it off.
The AirTag was launched in April last year – a wireless Bluetooth device designed to keep track of items such as keys, purses, cars or anything else at risk of being lost or stolen . But it has also been a gift for stalkers. “We find that’s quite a problem,” says Violet Alvarez of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which supports victims of bullying. “It’s so small, it’s imperceptible and very user-friendly. It requires no technical skills and is relatively inexpensive to purchase [from £29].”
AirTags are also widely available. While a dizzying array of spyware is available on eBay or Amazon, the Apple brand is ubiquitous and part of everyday life. “I’ve seen AirTags on sale in my local supermarket,” says Emma Pickering, senior operations manager for tech abuse at the domestic abuse charity Refuge. “People see them, think more about following, and the concept of following becomes more established. We normalize it.
Refuge and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust have been contacted by women like Laura, who received AirTag notifications on their phones. Some later found the devices hidden in children’s backpacks by former partners. Others had been slipped into the pockets or purses of women. In one instance, the AirTag could not be located at all. The Refuge team told the caller how to deactivate it, but they still don’t know where it is hidden.
At Swansea Crown Court this month, Christopher Paul Trotman, 41, pleaded guilty to harassing his ex-girlfriend by sticking an AirTag under the bumper of her car. Although she received notifications about the device on her phone, she had no idea what they meant and initially ignored them. It wasn’t until her daughter also started receiving notifications that the tag was found.
In most cases seen by Refuge and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, victims have a clear idea of who planted the device – usually current or former partners – but this is not always the case.
In June, Irish actress Hannah Rose May tweeted a warning after an AirTag was planted on his person at an after-hours event in Disneyland, California. She was in the parking lot at 2 a.m., about to drive home, when she received a notification that someone had been following her for two hours. Sports Illustrated model Brook Nader shared a similar experience on Instagram. Someone slipped an AirTag into her coat pocket while she was at a New York restaurant. Four hours later, in what she described as “the scariest moment ever,” Nader was walking home alone when she received a notification that she was being followed.
Apple stressed that the company takes the issue of harassment very seriously, which is why it designed the alert system that appears on your iPhone if an unregistered AirTag on you is seen moving with you over time. He adds that he works with the police when there have been incidents and points out that the misuse of AirTags is rare.
However, this alert system only works if the victim of harassment has an iPhone. So in December 2021, eight months after the launch of AirTags, Apple launched Tracker Detect, an app that will alert you on an Android device – as long as you are informed and plan enough to install the app and keep it active.
The AirTag also emits a warning chime after a certain time to alert anyone nearby to its presence. Initially, the chime sounded after three days, but later it was shortened to a random duration of between eight and 24 hours. Apple worked to make the chime louder — it can be especially hard to hear on a busy street or when hidden under a car — and to make the AirTag easier to find after receiving an alert.
For Rory Innes, founder of Cyber Helpline, these security updates serve to illustrate the problem. “The approach is: ‘Launch it, launch it in the world, put it in the market, monetize it and we can fix the problems later,’” he says. “It doesn’t happen in any other industry. You don’t fire up a car and fasten seat belts months later – and that’s because there are strict laws and regulations, safety standards and testing. It just doesn’t exist in the technology – and it’s a real gap.
“All of these features need to be rolled into the pre-release product,” he says. “I’ve sat in rooms with social media companies and software developers and their security concerns are always about hackers and encryption. They focus on protecting company servers and databases or protecting consumers from cyber viruses. But what about when the threat comes from someone inside the house? There is a complete lack of understanding when it comes to domestic violence and stalking, and how individuals become victims.
Another problem is the lack of support when this happens. “If you find an AirTag under your car or get a notification, there’s no talking to anyone at Apple,” Innes says. “At that point, speed is important. You need expert advice very quickly.
There are complex risk assessments to be made, depending on where you are and who you think might be the abuser. A study of female homicides following male violence found stalking behavior in 94% of cases and surveillance activity in 63%. Disabling access on an AirTag lets the stalker know you know what they’re up to. A bully who loses control may escalate their behavior. Some women might be tempted to confront someone they suspect planted the device. Any backlash carries potential dangers, Innes warns: “Apple just doesn’t provide enough support, and it’s all about profit.”
Apple declined an interview, but pointed out that the company has a 24-hour support line. He added that the AirTag support website advises anyone who feels they may be at risk of go to a public place and contact the authorities, who may work with Apple to request information related to the item.
The UK Government’s Online Safety Bill (currently at report stage in the House of Commons) offers little help here. “The focus is on removing harmful content, which is much better than nothing, but what it doesn’t cover in any way is the design of the products and the support offered when used at malicious purposes,” Innes says.
He advises victims to contact the police – each AirTag has a unique serial number which should identify the purchaser through their Apple ID – although the Suzy Lamplugh Trust has heard of cases where the police do not take this issue seriously enough. serious.
Laura had never seen her abusive partner during their relationship, but when they broke up, her tech abuse went beyond an AirTag. “I am a dinosaur; he loved fancy new gadgets, and when we were together he bought the tech,” she says. “He set up his computer passwords, she said, and when they parted ways he locked her out of his machine. “I was actually in the car getting it fixed when I got the AirTag alert.
“He also put some sort of tag on my keys – he said it was so we didn’t lose them – but it meant he knew where I was at all times. He had security cameras on the house, which he watched on his phone. One evening after we parted, I arrived at 11:30 p.m. and as I was walking up the stairs, loud music started coming from the radio. He watched me come in on his phone and activated the audio system remotely. I was running around the house unplugging everything. At that time, I no longer wanted to stay at home. I felt like I was going crazy. »
Laura now has a harassment protection order for five years. Although her ex was initially charged with harassment, it was later downgraded to a public order offence. He claimed that the AirTag must have fallen out of his pocket and there was no way to prove otherwise. Laura says she is still processing everything. “On bad days, I have this feeling of panic, I have to turn off my phone and do nothing,” she says. “The things he did are so unbelievable – it’s not normal behavior and yet he seemed such a normal person. That’s what makes me nervous.”
In the UK, the National Bullying Helpline can be contacted on 0808 802 0300. The National Domestic Violence Helpline is on 0808 2000 247.