Everything You Need To Know About How AirTags Work

Viral videos show the devices tracking people without their consent.

by Kaitlyn Wylde
Originally Published: 
A hand is holding a set of keys with an Apple AirTag attached to the key ring. Here's how airtags wo...
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On Sept. 30, a TikTok user posted a video of them removing an AirTag from under their bumper after getting a notification from Apple that an unrecognized device nearby. This video, which has been viewed over 3 million times, is one of many recent viral posts from people sharing the same fear: that an unknown AirTag was possibly tracking them.

Back in April 2021, Apple released AirTags, a $29 Bluetooth accessory created to help you keep tabs on your valuables. AirTags attach to personal items like wallets, bags, or even pets, and make them discoverable via the Find My app. But it wasn’t long after the devices came out before reports of people using AirTags to track someone else’s location started to surface.

“Apple’s AirTags are the latest example of [tech giants] releasing a product that is ripe for malicious use,” lawyer Carrie Goldberg, P.L.L.C., founder of victims’ rights firm C.A. Goldberg, tells Bustle. She adds that whenever new technology like this is released, she gets an influx of clients worried about their safety. “Whether it’s used to follow an attractive stranger home [or] for a jealous and controlling person to keep tabs on their partner, AirTags, when misused, are misused for the purposes of something more threatening than tracking,” Goldberg says. (Bustle reached out to Apple for comment, and we will update this post when we hear back.)

On Feb. 10, Apple released a statement saying that AirTags were created to locate personal belongings, “not to track people or another person’s property, and we condemn in the strongest possible terms any malicious use of our products.” The company added that it is working with law enforcement to “guard against further unwanted tracking.”

In the post, Apple announced AirTag safety updates, like earlier pop-ups that let you know if an AirTag that’s not yours is nearby. (Until this update, it could take up to 24 hours for that alert to go through.) They add that this notification will also specifically let you know what the device is, rather than just saying an “unknown accessory is near,” so that you don’t freak out if your sibling leaves their AirPods in your car by accident. The update will also adjust the tone sequence of AirTags that aren’t recognized by your device to make them easier to find and disable. Finally, Apple will give new AirTag users a warning that tracking someone without consent is a crime. Apple’s release did not confirm when these updates would be made available to all users.

If you receive one of these notifications, or find an unknown AirTag among your belongings, search for the tag and disable it once you’ve located it. While Goldberg suggests calling the police to report the foreign AirTag, she recommends having low expectations for what law enforcement can do in the case of tracking, especially if you don’t have an immediate idea of who might want to track you. Goldberg says that reaching out to a lawyer could increase your chances of getting more info from Apple about the owner of the AirTag, which can be used to identify them in the case that you decide to bring criminal charges. To be extra vigilant, Goldberg suggests changing the passwords to all of your social media and email accounts — which a stalker might try to get access to — and letting a friend or family member know what’s going on.

Before deciding whether or not to pursue any legal action, you’ll want to disable the AirTag and stop it from tracking you. Here’s what you need to know about how AirTags work so that you can protect yourself.

How Do AirTags Work?

When you register an AirTag and connect it to your device, it sends out a Bluetooth signal that becomes detectable to nearby devices in the Find My network. The devices transmit the location of the AirTag to the your iCloud. You can open up the Find My app and see the location of the AirTag on a map and get directions to it. If the item is super close, like in your living room, you can follow the directions in the Find My map. If it’s farther away, like if you left your wallet at a coffee shop, you’ll see the distance in miles next to the item. It will give you street directions to the item if it’s further than a few feet. Once you think you’re near the item, you can play a sound in the Find My app, and the built-in speaker on the AirTag will sound until you find it.

Are AirTags Safe?

AirTags that you buy for yourself are safe. The location of your AirTags is anonymous and encrypted, meaning that even Apple can’t find your AirTags if you can’t. Without access to your phone or iCloud account, the location of your AirTagged belongings isn’t traceable, which means that someone can’t hack into your personal AirTags to track you that way.

How To Disable An AirTag

If you get a notification that there’s an unknown AirTag near you or you find one in your belongings, you’ll want to disable it as soon as you can. If you’re an iPhone user running iOS 14.5, you can disable the AirTag through the Find My app; just tap through the instructions on the safety alert notification.

Android users can download a free app called Tracker Detect to manually scan for Bluetooth devices nearby, but can’t disable AirTags through the app. Android users need to find the AirTag, then disable it by removing the battery. Once you’ve located an unknown AirTag, push down and twist counterclockwise on the back of the AirTag. This will loosen the cover so you can remove the battery. Once the battery is out, the owner can no longer track it.

With your phone, hover over the AirTag to reveal the serial number. If you plan on getting in touch with the police about being tracked without your consent, you’ll want to write down this number, as this may help to identify the owner.

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