How Apple’s AirTags caused a security scare


Apple's latest gadget seems simple and handy: a shiny, button-shaped device that can help you find your keys, wallet, or handbag.

But creating the device, AirTag, also presented a serious challenge for the privacy-focused company: how to help people track missing items without accidentally allowing users themselves to be tracked. And, in coming up with a solution, AirTags could change the entire industry devoted to finding your stuff. The Cupertino tech giant will launch its Tags into Australian stores on Friday after unveiling the much-anticipated gadgets in its first event of the year.

Apple AirTags were unveiled at Apple's Spring Loaded event.
Apple AirTags were unveiled at Apple's Spring Loaded event.

The $45, battery-powered items send out a low-powered Bluetooth signal that can be read by Apple devices to track their location and broadcast a sound when lost. But creating an Apple device to track items also raised serious security considerations for the company which has become known for its industry-leading stance on privacy, worldwide iPhone product marketing vice-president Kaiann Drance told SmartDaily.

"This is something that is great for tracking items but it's not designed for tracking people," she says. "We wanted to make sure we had a set of features that would be a strong deterrent and strongly discourage any type of unwanted tracking. We're trying to make sure there is an awareness of this and also that it's available to third parties. Hopefully we've done some things to raise the bar." Apple sensing and connectivity senior director Ron Huang says privacy enhancements had been created to help both AirTag users and those who didn't use iPhones.


If an AirTag has been placed in someone's bag or pocket, for example, their iPhone will detect and warn them about its presence with a message stating, "AirTag found moving with you".

"When an iPhone does detect that there's potentially unwanted tracking, it will alert you directly on the lock screen and it will notify you when you arrive home," he says.

"It's really important to us that we're only detecting AirTags that have been travelling with the iPhone."

Security considerations have also been taken for those outside Apple's ecosystem, Huang says.

An AirTag that has "been away from its owner for a while" will emit a high-pitched beep to alert those nearby to its existence. Non-iPhone users can scan the device using NFC (near-field communication) to see if it has been marked as lost or disable it.

Other security additions to AirTags include end-to-end encryption and regularly updating Bluetooth identifiers to prevent AirTag users being tracked or even known to Apple. And Huang says Apple would also require Bluetooth changes and minimum standards on trackers from other firms using Apple's Find My network, ranging from adding a speaker and accelerometer to printing a logo on a device so anyone who borrows it will know it can be tracked.

Apple's AirTag is a Bluetooth device designed to reunite users with lost items.
Apple's AirTag is a Bluetooth device designed to reunite users with lost items.

Apple's AirTags, along with third parties using its ecosystem, will compete with products from US firm Tile, which launched its first products in 2015.

So far, Chipolo and Belkin have signed up to be part of Apple's expanded Find My network, as well as e-bike maker VanMoof.

Telsyte managing director Foad Fadaghi says Apple was far from the first company to launch Bluetooth trackers but had a unique advantage due to the size of the network of "finders" - one billion iPhones to track down errant AirTags. "It will introduce a lot of first-time users to tagging and location-based tagging," he says. But he says some consumers may question the cost of AirTags when factoring in the price of their accessories, and whether items from third parties will be able to compete with Apple's own brand.



Originally published as How Apple's AirTags caused a security scare

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