On a Sunday evening in September, Ashley Estrada was with a friend in Los Angeles when she received a strange notification on her iPhone: “AirTag detected near you”.
An AirTag is a 1.26-inch disc with location tracking capabilities that Apple sold earlier this year to “keep track of your belongings”. Mrs. Estrada, 24, had none, and neither did her friends. The notification on her phone said that the AirTag had first been spotted on her four hours earlier. A map of AirTag’s history showed the zigzag path Ms. Estrada had ridden through town on errands.
“I felt so hurt,” she said. “I just had the feeling, who is following me? What was your intention with me? It was scary.”
Ms. Estrada is not alone in her experience. In the past few months, people have posted on TikTok, Reddit and Twitter about finding AirTags on their cars and in their belongings. Concern is growing that the devices could encourage a new form of stalking that was predicted by privacy groups when Apple unveiled the devices in April.
The New York Times spoke to seven women who believe AirTags have been used, including a 17-year-old whose mother secretly put one in her car to keep track of her whereabouts.
Some authorities have begun investigating the AirTags threat. The West Seneca Police Department in New York recently warned his community the tracking potential of the devices after an AirTag is found on a car bumper. Apple has complied with a subpoena to obtain information about the AirTag in the case, which could lead to charges, West Seneca police said.
And in Canada, a local police department said it had investigated five incidents in which thieves placed AirTags on “high-end vehicles so they could later locate and steal them”.
Researchers now believe that AirTags equipped with Bluetooth technology could uncover a more widespread problem in technology-assisted location. They send out a digital signal that devices running Apple’s mobile operating system can recognize. These devices then report where an AirTag was last seen. Unlike similar tracking products from competitors like Tile, Apple added features to prevent abuse, including notifications like the one Ms. Estrada received and automatic beeps. (Tile plans to publish one feature to prevent persecution of people for the next year, a spokeswoman for that company said.)
AirTags pose a “uniquely harmful” threat, however, as the ubiquity of Apple’s products allows for more accurate monitoring of people’s movements, said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the so-called Stalkerware.
“Apple has automatically made part of the network every iOS device that AirTags use to report the location of an AirTag,” said Ms. Galperin. “The network that Apple has access to is larger and more powerful than that of the other trackers. It is more powerful at tracking and more dangerous at stalking. “
Apple doesn’t release sales numbers, but the tiny $ 29 AirTags have proven popular and have sold out consistently since they were unveiled.
An Apple spokesman, Alex Kirschner, said in a statement that the company takes customer security “very seriously” and is “committed to the privacy and security of AirTag.” He said the small devices have functions that notify users when an unfamiliar AirTag might be with them and that discourage bad actors from using an AirTag for nefarious purposes.
“If users ever feel that their security is at risk, they are encouraged to contact local law enforcement who can work with Apple to provide available information about the unfamiliar AirTag,” said Kirschner.
The police could ask Apple to provide information about the owner of the AirTag in order to possibly identify the perpetrator. However, some of the people who spoke to The Times could not find the associated AirTags they were notified of, saying the police do not always take reports of the notifications on their phones seriously.
After a Friday night with her boyfriend earlier that month, Erika Torres, a music student in New Orleans, was notified on her iPhone that an “unknown accessory” had been discovered near her over a two-hour period and carried her from a bar to her home.
She called the police and Apple, but never found an AirTag. An Apple representative told her other devices could trigger the alert including AirPods. When Ms. Torres posted a video of her experience on YouTube, a dozen people commented on how it happened to them. “The number of reports makes me think that there has to be some kind of glitch that leads all of these people to experience this,” said Ms. Torres. “I hope they don’t all get stalked.”
Ms. Estrada, who received the notification in Los Angeles, eventually found the quarter-size tracker in a room behind the license plate of her 2020 Dodge Charger. she posted a video of her ordeal on TikTok that went viral.
“Apple probably released this product with the intent to do good, but it shows that the technology can be used for good and bad,” said Ms. Estrada.
Ms. Estrada said she was told by a Los Angeles police dispatcher that her situation was not an emergency and that she would have to bring the device to the station in the morning if she wanted to file a complaint. She didn’t want to wait and disposed of it after taking several photos.
A Los Angeles police spokesman told the Times the department had never heard of cases where an AirTag had been used to track a person or vehicle. But Ms. Estrada said that after she posted her TikTok video, an Apple employee contacted her, who was acting alone. The employee was able to connect the AirTag to a woman whose address was in Central Los Angeles.
Another woman was notified on her iPhone that she was being followed by an “unknown accessory” after leaving her gym in November. When she got home, she called the police.
The woman, Michaela Clough of Corning, Calif., Was told that a complaint could only be made if someone showed up at her home and that Apple’s notifications were insufficient to prove she was being followed. She later contacted an Apple customer service representative who was able to disconnect the device from Ms. Clough’s iPhone. The device was never found.
“I was scared and frustrated that there was nothing I could do about it,” said Ms. Clough, noting that she had not returned to her gym since then. “I just stayed at home for a good week there.”
AirTags and other products connected to Apple’s tracking network called “Find My” trigger alerts to unidentified iPhones they are traveling on. The AirTag product page on Apple’s website states that the devices are “designed to prevent unwanted tracking” and that they will play a tone after a period of time in which they do not recognize the paired device.
After raising concerns about stalking in June, Apple pushed an update on AirTags to have them beep within one day of being away from their connected devices, rather than three days. Still, “they don’t beep very loudly,” said Ms. Galperin.
A person who does not own an iPhone may find it harder to spot an unwanted AirTag. AirTags are not compatible with Android smartphones. Earlier this month, Apple released an Android app that can scan for AirTags – but you need to be vigilant enough to download it and use it proactively.
Apple declined to say if it is working with Google on technology that would allow Android phones to automatically recognize its trackers.
People who claim they have been persecuted have described Apple’s security measures as inadequate. Ms. Estrada said she was notified four hours after her phone first noticed the rogue device. Others said it took them days to become aware of an unfamiliar AirTag. According to Apple, the timing of the warnings may vary depending on the operating system and the iPhone’s location settings.
The inconsistencies in the devices have created confusion for those who have not been strictly persecuted. Mary Ford, a 17-year-old high school student from Cary, NC, received a notification in late October that she was being followed by an unidentified AirTag after driving to an appointment. She panicked when she searched her car.
Ms. Ford didn’t realize it wasn’t a threat until her mother revealed that she had put the tracker in the vehicle about two weeks earlier to track her daughter’s whereabouts.
“I was nervous that Mary was out and couldn’t find her,” said her mother, Wendy Ford. She hadn’t meant to withhold her daughter’s knowledge of the AirTag, “but if I had known she would have been notified, I would I probably told her. “
Jahna Maramba rented a vehicle from Turo car sharing company in Los Angeles last month and then received a notification with her friends on a Saturday night about an unfamiliar AirTag near her.
She took the vehicle to her friend’s parking garage, where she searched the outside of the car for an hour before the owner notified her that he had placed the device in the vehicle. Mrs. Maramba had been driving the car for two days.
A Turo spokesman said in a statement that the company has no control over the technology car owners use on the vehicles they rent.
“Imagine receiving a notification that you are being followed,” said Ms. Maramba. “And there is nothing you can do about it.”