Apple and Google team up to tackle AirTag stalking

Apple and Google have teamed up to thwart people who try to track others using devices designed to help find lost keys and luggage.

The rival tech giants do not often collaborate on new features for their smartphones, with a joint initiative to create contact tracing software during the pandemic one of few past examples.

But now they have submitted a proposal to set standards for combating secret surveillance, following reports that gadgets like Apple’s AirTags have been used for malicious purposes.

A lawsuit filed in San Francisco in December alleged that women had been stalked by ex-partners who hid the devices in their belongings – including a car and a child’s backpack.

Apple insisted it had made the small, disc-shaped gadgets “stalker-proof”, but has acknowledged that “bad actors” have tried misusing them.

While AirTags have become especially popular since being released in 2021, the same concerns apply to similar products including Tile and Pebblebee.

The devices use Bluetooth technology and are designed to be attached to easily lost items like wallets, which then show up in an app on the user’s smartphone.


AirTags are loaded with what Apple calls its U1 chip, which is essentially able to “ping” any other Apple device out in the wild to triangulate the precise location of the AirTag itself.

Because there are so many iPhones out there, this chip means the AirTag doesn’t rely on more familiar location tech like GPS.

To see where an AirTag is, users open the Find My app on an iPhone – and newer handsets can get precise on-screen, Sat Nav-style directions.

Misplaced AirTags can be put into a “lost mode”, which allows users to enter a custom message that displays on someone’s phone when they hold it near the lost AirTag – like contact details, for example.

It all sounds pretty convenient and when used as intended, such as for missing luggage, it can prove excellent value.

But some have expressed concern about the gadget’s potential to track people rather than items, with criminals or stalkers theoretically capable of slipping one into someone’s bag or even on their car.

Apple insists it has made AirTags “stalker-proof”, because the Find My app will alert people if one of the gadgets that does not belong to them – and is assigned to someone else – is detected for an extended period of time.

‘Industry-wide action required’

Apple and Google, which run the iOS and Android mobile operating systems respectively, have previously worked on their own solutions to the malicious tracking issue.

iPhone users are now warned if an unknown AirTag might be “travelling with them”, for example.

But the two companies want to go further by proposing an industry standard, and they hope to submit it to an organisation called the Internet Engineering Task Force later this year.

Dave Burke, Google’s vice president of engineering for Android, said the issue of unwanted tracking “requires industry-wide action to solve”.

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A draft proposal has suggested security upgrades that apply to all tracking devices would be delivered via regular software updates to Apple and Android smartphones.

The move was welcomed by campaigners, with the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s Safety Net Project saying it would “decrease the burden on survivors in detecting unwanted trackers”.