Stop Selling the AirTag Immediately, Privacy Advocate Urges Apple

Stop Selling AirTag

Apple’s AirTag accessory has made multiple headlines, for plenty of reasons. Society has loudly denounced the AirTag as enabling abusive partners to stalk and harass their victims. In an interview with The Mac Observer, a leading advocate for privacy says the Cupertino-based tech giant should stop selling the AirTag immediately.

Furthering a ‘Mostly Opaque’ Crime

In early April, Motherboard revealed a snapshot of the extent to which Apple’s AirTag is being used to stalk others. The outlet obtained police reports of stalking, harassment, and abuse using the tracking device. Specifically, the reports centered around victims of intimate partner violence.

The report came as mounting evidence of abusers using Apple’s AirTag as a weapon against their victims. Cupertino may intend the device for people to use to keep track of missing items, a job it does well. However, security experts predicted early on how nefarious individuals might abuse the tracking device. We’ve already seen, time and time again, the AirTag used as a tool to stalk and harass women. The idea of Cupertino decided to stop selling the AirTag would likely be welcomed by many.

AirTag notification of item left behind
A notification like this may be welcome if you’ve misplaced an item, but its impact on society as a whole may make it more harmful than good.

While we cannot, just yet, say that stalking cases have become more prevalent with the release of the AirTag, one noted privacy advocate believes it’s a given. Albert Fox Cahn, founder of Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), told The Mac Observer, “to me it seems inconceivable that it hasn’t increased the number of stalkers who use [the AirTag].”

Cahn points out that stalking, like many aspects of intimate partner violence, is a “mostly opaque crime.” Victims often refuse to come forward, out of fear reporting the abuse will only make matters worse. This is nothing new; experts have said for decades that the number of actual cases of intimate partner violence were much higher than those reported.

The Psychological Impact of AirTag Stalking

Intimate partner violence often scars its victims, physically and psychologically, for life. For the victim, it’s something that will often be a source of anxiety, terror, and nightmares. These last for many years after the victim finally breaks the cycle and escape their abusers.

We know that intimate partner violence is one of the most singularly traumatizing things that anybody in our society has to endure. Simply the fear that they could be tracked and don’t know is a source of really deep concern

Often-times most concerning to them, most frightening, was the idea that heir former abuser, their current abuser, could track their location. And that’s something that Apple has made easier than ever.

Even though Cahn notes academia has yet to publish any studies examining the effect AirTag stalking might have on victims, it’s only a matter of time. He believes the reviews are forthcoming. Once published, they’ll demonstrate that the idea of an AirTag secretly, silently tracking their every move, terrifies many people.

It’s something Cahn fully believes Apple has the ability to stop in its tracks. “They should stop selling it,” he says. “I mean, it’s really that simple.” If Apple were to cease any and all sales of AirTags, turn off the ability in the Find My app to register new devices, that would certainly be a step in the right direction.

Apple Should Stop Selling AirTag

I’ll stop short of saying Apple should disable all AirTag tracking in the Find My app. After all, that would generate an immense backlash, customers insisting on refunds or even pursuing lawsuits against Cupertino. At a minimum, though, Apple should put a stop to AirTag stalking in the future by ceasing sales of the tracking devices and new activations.

After all, is it in society’s best interest for the tech giant to continue selling the AirTag? Cahn argues no, and I’m prone to agree with him. It’s clearly a case of Cupertino listening not so much to society, to the people affected by the technology. Instead, the leadership at Apple is listening to engineers who say, “Wait, give us a sec, we can fix this.”

You have a bad but profitable idea, and people think well we can just engineer a safeguard into it. They don’t listen to the survivors when they’re doing it, they don’t listen to those most impacted. They listen to the engineers. And here they engineered woefully insufficient protections that have, at best, told people they were being tracked long after their location data has been compromised, and in many cases failed even to do that.

Cupertino’s Response to the Problem Doesn’t Fix Anything

Apple has taken a reactionary approach to the problem of AirTag stalking. The company has responded to complaints about the devices being misused by shortening the amount of time it takes to alert people they may have one of the devices nearby. This, of course, does little for someone without an iPhone or if the AirTag’s speaker is disabled.

Cupertino now offers new verbiage in the activation process. In the latest version of iOS, the software warns consumers of the legal consequences if they use an AirTag to stalk someone. Apple began offering an app on the Google Play Store so Android users can scan for nearby AirTag devices.

Cupertino has also offered guidance for how people should respond when they think someone’s using an AirTag to stalk them. Some, though, have taken issue with these recommendations as being insufficient or just plain wrong.

All of that, to quote my grandfather, is simply closing the barn door after the horses have already escaped. Cahn says it’s already clear what the AirTag means for society: “Apple tried to make a tracking device that couldn’t be weaponized as a stalking device and they found out it’s impossible.”

Other Accessories Don’t Have Marketing Reach

Many have asked why this is being decried now, when Bluetooth tracking devices have been around for years. Tile sells such a device, a Life360 affiliate produces and markets one. Nevertheless, it’s Apple coming under fire for the stalking capabilities of its AirTag.

The reason is simple, Cahn says. Tile, Life360, and others haven’t spent decades touting themselves as the arbiters of our privacy protection. “Tile isn’t taking out massive billboard campaigns on the side of the road,” Cahn says, promising “in 10-foot high letters to give us privacy.”

Apple has always claimed to be fiercely protective of personal privacy. Steve Jobs insisted that privacy should be sacrosanct for all tech companies. He defined privacy as people knowing “what they’re signing up for, in plain English and repeatedly.” Cahn points out that’s a legacy Apple has, on the surface, continued to project.

A company that puts a premium on our privacy. They’ll protect us against any adversary, whether cybercriminals or the government themselves

For them to turn around after all of those promises and put out a tracking device. It really violates all the rhetoric we’ve heard for years.

Apple’s massive marketing reach and global distribution channels mean it can sell its own tracking device on a scale others simply cannot hope to achieve. This is why Cahn believes Apple should stop selling the AirTag. Instead, he thinks, Cupertino is “imagining a world with a billion AirTags around the planet. And to me that’s not a world I want to live in.”

Nor do I, Mr. Cahn. Nor do I.

7 thoughts on “Stop Selling the AirTag Immediately, Privacy Advocate Urges Apple

  • Jeff:

    Great writeup. 

    A thought. 

    This is yet one more example of something yours truly wrote about concerning AI and other technologies whose abuse we cannot deter with a Hippocratic Oath (like the one created for AI developers), as that presupposes we know, at the outset, how that technology might be abused, which history shows we cannot know or anticipate.

    That principle alone could deter any inventor, creator, engineer or entrepreneur with altruistic intent if they stopped to consider all the potential exploits of their creation; yet for most industry, Apple included, that principle holds the promise of even greater things. TC almost invariably ends the product release events with the exclamation that Apple cannot wait to see what we will do with their new products. As it should be. 

    As I argued in the AI piece, any product, but particularly those designed to alter our behaviour (one could make that case for AirTags), should be accompanied, at the time of release, with a monitoring and evaluation system designed to detect signal for adverse events. For AirTags, stalking would qualify. That signal detection should prompt urgent review with or without suspension of sales, depending upon its severity. In the interests of maximising benefit relative to risk or harm, this should be applied to AirTags. The objective of monitoring and evaluation (aka M&E) is to identify a problem before anyone else does.

    Preferably, though hired by the company, such monitoring and evaluation should be conducted by an independent or third party contractor, who submits these reports accompanied by recommendations to proceed with or to suspend further sales pending review and satisfactory revision of said product, defined as ‘it resolves the identified problem’. 

    If non-systematically acquired reports are simply forwarded to the same people tasked with product manufacture and oversight, their response will be to ‘fix it’ in the abstract, whilst continuing business as usual. This ‘fix’ will, as experience has shown, focus on the product in abstract, and is unlikely to include real empirical human use data to see how a creative human is likely to ‘break it’ (NB: bad guys tend not to volunteer for controlled behavioural studies where their criminal behaviour might be prosecuted). 

    These controlled empirical data should collected in two stages: 1) volunteers who are given specific tasks and observed how they complete them over time, and if no adverse signal is detected; 2) limited release into the wild with continued monitoring and evaluation, with predefined criteria to suspend or continue with sales. 

    Without monitoring and evaluation, any product release is little more than, as one says in American football, a Hail Mary. 

    1. What part of the argument is absurd? Can you offer a meaningful rebuttal, try to convince me and others that we are mistaken? Would you tell sunstone who has been subjected to AirTag stalking that their fears it might happen again are absurd?

      Make no mistake, I fully believe Apple makes some of the best products in the industry. I won’t carry a phone other than an iPhone. Unless there’s a very good reason, I won’t use a complete other than a Mac. Etc etc.

      That does not make the company immune to mistakes, immune to criticism. Take away Apple’s marketing reach, disregard its purported stance on privacy over the years, you’re still left with this. The AirTag is almost infinitely more capable as a stalking device than any of its competitors because it broadcasts its location through reach and every iOS and macOS device in range with Bluetooth enabled and internet connectivity. That cannot be said for any other tracking device, save those with embedded cellular modems. For a Tile to work, by way of example, it has to locate another device running the Tile app.

    1. Unless it’s manufactured by a company rivaling Apple’s size and popularity, I don’t see how others could “fill the void.”

      I’m not saying Apple can single-handedly end stalking. It can, however, stop making it so bloody easy. Other tracking services depend either on neighboring phones having their own app installed or the devices having their own means of accessing the internet, such as a cell connection.

  • It’s hard not to imagine the old cliché, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” While it is great that the vast majority of AirTag users do not use the device for nefarious purposes, it is obvious that those that do use them for nefarious purposes are ruining it for everyone. If Apple does not want to stop selling the AirTag, they should develop an immediate solution to this issue that properly addresses the serious nature of the situation.

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