One Sunday evening in September, Ashley Estrada was at a friend’s house in Los Angeles when she received a strange notification on her iPhone: “AirTag detected near you”.
An AirTag is a 1.26-inch disk with tracking capabilities that Apple started selling earlier this year as a way to “keep track of your stuff.” Ms. Estrada, 24, did not own one, nor did the friends with whom she was. The notification on her phone said the AirTag had been first spotted with her four hours earlier. A map of AirTag’s history showed the zigzag path Ms. Estrada had taken through town while shopping.
âI felt so raped,â she said. “I just felt like, who’s stalking me?” What was their intention with me? It was scary.”
Ms. Estrada is not alone in her experience. In recent months, people have posted on TikTok, Reddit and Twitter to find AirTags on their cars and in their personal effects. There are growing concerns that the devices may foster a new form of stalking, which privacy groups said could occur when Apple introduced the devices in April.
The New York Times spoke to seven women who believe they were tracked with AirTags, including a 17-year-old whose mother surreptitiously placed one on her car to keep informed of her whereabouts.
Some authorities have started to take a closer look at the threat posed by AirTags. The West Seneca Police Department in New York recently warned his community of the potential for tracking devices after an AirTag is discovered on a car bumper. Apple has complied with a subpoena to obtain AirTag information in the case, which could lead to charges, West Seneca police said.
And in Canada, a local police department said he had investigated five incidents of thieves placing AirTags on “high-end vehicles so that they could later locate and steal them.”
Researchers now believe AirTags, which are equipped with Bluetooth technology, could reveal a more widespread tech-tracking issue. They emit a digital signal that can be detected by devices running Apple’s mobile operating system. These devices then report where an AirTag was last seen. Unlike similar tracking products from competitors like Tile, Apple has added features to prevent abuse, including notifications like the one Ms. Estrada received and automatic beeps. (Tile plans to come out a characteristic to prevent people from being tracked next year, a spokeswoman for that company said.)
But AirTags pose a “only harmful” threat because the ubiquity of Apple products allows more precise monitoring of people’s movements, said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation which studies so-called stalkerware.
âApple has automatically turned every iOS device into part of the network that AirTags use to report the location of an AirTag,â Ms. Galperin said. âThe network that Apple has access to is larger and more powerful than that used by other trackers. It’s more powerful for tracking and more dangerous for harassment.
Apple is not disclosing sales figures, but the tiny $ 29 AirTags have proven to be popular, selling steadily since their unveiling.
Apple spokesperson Alex Kirschner said in a statement that the company takes customer safety “very seriously” and is “committed to protecting the privacy and security of AirTag.” He said small devices have features that let users know if an unknown AirTag might be with them and that deter bad actors from using an AirTag for nefarious purposes.
“If users feel their safety is threatened, they are encouraged to contact local law enforcement agencies who can work with Apple to provide all available information about the unknown AirTag,” Kirschner said.
Police could ask Apple to provide information on the owner of the AirTag, potentially identifying the culprit. But some of the people who spoke to The Times couldn’t find the associated AirTags they were made aware of and said police don’t always take notifications of notifications on their phones seriously.
After a Friday night out with her boyfriend this month, Erika Torres, a music graduate student in New Orleans, was informed by her iPhone that an “unknown accessory” had been detected near her on a period of two hours, moving with her from a bar to her home.
She called the police and she called Apple, but she never found an AirTag. An Apple representative told him Other devices could trigger the alert, including AirPods. When Ms Torres posted a video about her experience on YouTube, a dozen people commented that it was happening to them. “The number of reports makes me think that there must be some sort of problem that is causing all of these people to go through this,” Ms Torres said. “I hope they aren’t all hunted down.”
Ms. Estrada, who received the notification while in Los Angeles, eventually found the quarter-sized tracker lodged in a space behind the license plate of her 2020 Dodge Charger. She posted a video of his ordeal on TikTok, which has gone viral.
âApple probably released this product with the intention of doing good, but it shows that the technology can be used for good or bad purposes,â Ms. Estrada said.
Ms Estrada said a Los Angeles Police dispatcher told her her situation was not urgent and if she wanted to file a report she would have to bring the device with her to the station in the morning. She didn’t want to wait and got rid of it after taking several photos.
A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department told The Times the department has not heard of any instances in which an AirTag has been used to track a person or vehicle. But Ms Estrada said that after posting her TikTok video, an Apple employee, acting alone, contacted her. The employee was able to connect the AirTag to a woman whose address was in downtown Los Angeles.
Another woman was told by her iPhone that she was being followed by an “unknown accessory” after leaving her gym in November. Back home, she called the police.
The woman, Michaela Clough of Corning, Calif., Has learned that a report can only be filed if someone shows up at her house and Apple’s notifications were not sufficient proof that she was being harassed. She then 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 terrified and frustrated that I couldn’t do anything about it,” Ms Clough said, noting that she had not returned to her gym since. âFor a good week there, I just stayed home.
AirTags and other products connected to Apple’s location network, called “Find My,” trigger alerts for unknown iPhones they are traveling with. The AirTag product page on Apple’s website states that the devices are “designed to discourage unwanted tracking” and will play a sound after a while without detecting the device they’re paired with.
In June, after concerns about harassment were raised, Apple pushed an update to AirTags so that they start beeping within one day of moving away from their linked devices, compared to three days previously. Still, “they’re not beeping very loud,” Ms. Galperin said.
A person who doesn’t have an iPhone may have a harder time spotting an unwanted AirTag. AirTags are not compatible with Android smartphones. Earlier this month, Apple released an Android app that can find AirTags, but you need to be vigilant enough to proactively download and use it.
Apple declined to say whether it was working with Google on technology that would allow Android phones to automatically detect its trackers.
Those who said they were tracked called Apple’s guarantees insufficient. Ms Estrada said she was notified four hours after her phone first noticed the malicious gadget. Others said it took them days to learn of an unknown AirTag. According to Apple, the timing of alerts may vary depending on the iPhone’s operating system and location settings.
Device inconsistencies confused people who weren’t necessarily being followed maliciously. Mary Ford, a 17-year-old high school student from Cary, North Carolina, received a notification in late October saying she was being tracked by an unknown AirTag after driving on a date. She panicked as she searched her car.
Ms Ford didn’t realize this wasn’t a threat when her mother revealed she had put the tracker in the vehicle about two weeks earlier to track her daughter’s whereabouts.
“I was nervous that Mary went out and couldn’t find her,” said her mother, Wendy Ford. She said she hadn’t intended to withhold knowledge of AirTag from her daughter, “but if I had known she would have been notified, I probably would have told her.”
Jahna Maramba rented a vehicle from the Turo carsharing service last month in Los Angeles, then received a notification of an unknown AirTag near her on a Saturday night with her girlfriends.
She took the vehicle to her friend’s parking lot where she searched the outside of the car for an hour before its owner informed her that he had placed the device inside the vehicle. Ms. Maramba had been driving the car for two days.
A spokesperson for Turo said in a statement that the company has no control over the technology car owners use on the vehicles they lease.
âImagine finding out via a notification that you are being tracked,â Ms. Maramba said. “And there’s nothing you can do about it.”