AirTag, Tile, SmartTag security: Are you being tracked?

Privacy news
4 mins
AirTag, Tile, SmartTag device on a keyring.

Bluetooth trackers like the Apple AirTag, Life360’s Tile line, and Samsung’s SmartTag make it easier to keep track of your valuables and keys, but they’ve also made headlines for the wrong reasons in recent months.

The products, designed to help customers locate their own property, have been used by guys to stalk ex-girlfriends, by strangers to follow celebrities, and by mothers to secretly track their teenage kids. Fancy cars are also a target; it’s become an issue with criminals attaching the devices to cars to steal them later.

More: Video: What are stalkerware apps? Protect yourself from phone monitoring

How do AirTags, Tiles, and SmartTags work?

The purpose of Bluetooth trackers is to help users easily find items if they go missing. Attaching this small piece of hardware to anything you don’t want to lose, from your keys to a puppy, makes it traceable. Apple’s “Find My” app, which can help you locate an iPhone or iPad, works in a similar way, and AirTags, Tiles, and Samsung SmartTags extend that service to virtually any object. 

All you have to do is pair an AirTag to your iPhone and loop the AirTag onto, say, your keyring. If you can’t find your keys, you’ll just have to use the Find My app to locate it on a map. The AirTag will also play a sound for you to find it, if it’s close enough to you.

Tiles and SmartTags work in a similar way with the Tile app and SmartThings Find app, respectively.

What are the security risks of Bluetooth trackers?

The issue with Bluetooth trackers is that someone could slip them onto a person or vehicle they are trying to follow with relative ease. Their small size makes them highly portable, without adding much weight to objects they’re attached to—but also hard to detect for someone being followed. The AirTag, which resembles a large button, is just 1.26 inches in diameter, weighing 11 grams. A Tile Mate is even smaller, at 1.4 x 1.4 x 0.24 inches, and weighing 5.7 grams.

The most common crimes associated with these trackers are stalking and theft—particularly the theft of cars. There have been multiple cases of people being followed or valuable cars being tagged so that criminals can find them later.

Read more: Is your car spying on you? 

What safeguards do AirTags, Tiles, and SmartTags have?

While the risks AirTags carry sound grim, Apple has built in some notable safeguards. If an AirTag is following you but your iPhone does not recognize it as yours, you will receive an “AirTag Found Moving With You” notification. Then you will have the option to have the AirTag emit a sound, making it easier to uncover. If you’re using an Android phone, the AirTag will automatically make a sound after a certain period of time.

This is an excellent feature in theory, although in practice it can be imprecise and lead you to gain irrelevant (and rather distressing) notifications if someone with an AirTag happens to be walking or sitting near you. 

These alerts can be turned off, though, and if Apple isn’t more judicious with its alerts, users may become desensitized to them and ignore ones that are of genuine concern. 

With AirTags, any NFC scanner can provide information on the tag, with a notification that sends you to a website with instructions on how to disable the AirTag’s tracking capabilities. At the same site, you can find the device’s unique serial number, which could help link the AirTag to its owner.

Tiles, on the other hand, don’t have the same level of safety features. In order to scan for and detect Tile devices in the area, and potentially find an unknown Tile with a malicious purpose, you need to have the Tile app downloaded already. Samsung’s SmartThings Find app also allows you to scan your surroundings for SmartTags.

Tile has said it might start banning users who use the product to track people, but that wouldn’t be much of a deterrent.

Worried about being tracked with AirTags? 

Bluetooth trackers are here to stay. If you are worried about being stalked, take into account the risk of AirTags and similar products.

  • Don’t leave your possessions unattended in public places, and if you’re traveling, regularly inspect your baggage for trackers.
  • When you can, park your car in locked garages. 
  • Download the Tile and SmartThings Find apps to scan your surroundings even if you don’t have an account or use the product yourself.
  • Make sure you’ve downloaded the latest iOS on your iPhone or iPad to ensure it’s compatible with “AirTag Found Moving With You.”
  • Never assume an “AirTag Found Moving With You” alert is just someone else nearby.
  • If you find a tracker that is not yours among your possessions, take it to law enforcement, as the serial number could be used to find the person who slipped it onto you.
  • If you hear an unfamiliar ping coming from your possessions, including your car, don’t ignore it—investigate.

Read more: Tech safety for survivors of domestic violence 

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