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Apple’s AirTags can be as creepy as they are helpful. Finding them with some phones is easier than with others.

The Android app made by Apple to find those $29 trackers comes with a big caveat

Apple AirTags were designed for tracking down lost items, but could also be planted in bags and cars to try to track people. (Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)
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Apple’s AirTags are useful and relatively inexpensive, which might make them great stocking stuffers this holiday season. But some people are instead using the $29 Bluetooth trackers as stocking stalkers — tiny homing devices that transmit their location right under people’s noses.

The York Regional Police in Ontario, Canada, has reported five incidents since September where AirTags were found surreptitiously stuck to “high-end” cars, presumably so they could be tracked and stolen later. More recently, reports of similar tracking attempts have emerged in Michigan and Atlanta. And at least one Washington Post reader has reached out to the Help Desk because they found an AirTag tucked into a package of old personal items their ex had mailed them.

Apple has long insisted that AirTags are only meant to help people find their own lost items, but not everyone is on the same page about how they should be used. If you own an iPhone, built-in tools make it relatively simple to spot an AirTag on or near you. But if you are one of the millions of people who own and use Android phones, finding an AirTag that’s too close for comfort can be harder than it should be.

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Whether you suspect someone might want to track you or your valuables, it’s important to know what to do in case you are a target. Here’s what you should know about how AirTags work, and why finding them with some phones is easier than with others.

What are AirTags, anyway?

AirTags are tiny plastic-and-metal disks, each slightly bigger than a quarter. Apple built them to attach to — or slip inside — all kinds of items, so you can more easily find them when they go missing.

Despite what their size may suggest, AirTags are full of interesting components. Among other things, there’s a tiny speaker in there, along with Bluetooth and what’s called an ultra-wideband radio. If you have an iPhone 11 or newer, that UWB radio is what will help your Find My app pinpoint your wayward items.

Apple also built in features to prevent them from being used to track people without their knowledge. If an AirTag hasn’t been around its owner for between eight and 24 hours, it will chirp to alert bystanders of its presence. And if you do happen to find a stray AirTag near you, touching it to your smartphone’s near-field communication (or NFC) reader will bring up instructions for disabling it.

One thing that isn’t in an AirTag: a GPS transmitter for passing along precise locations. When an AirTag (or an item containing one) is separated from its owner for long enough, it sends out a Bluetooth signal to nearby devices that try to pin down its location — then, that information gets pushed into iCloud where you can see it.

Because these tiny trackers rely on Bluetooth connections to share their locations, you shouldn’t have much trouble finding one with your smartphone — theoretically, anyway.

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How can I find one with an iPhone?

If you have an iPhone 6s or newer, you don’t need to worry about downloading any separate apps. As long as your device is running Apple’s iOS 14.5 software or newer, it will automatically alert you if it detects a nearby AirTag that doesn’t belong to you.

From there, you can open the built-in Find My app to see if your travels have been tracked and force the AirTag to play a sound to help you spot it. If you find one that definitely isn’t yours and you’re concerned for your safety, you should disable the AirTag by pushing down on the metal plate, turning it clockwise and removing the battery. Your next step should be to contact local law enforcement to report what you’ve found.

What if I have an Android phone?

Just after Apple released the iOS 15.2 software update earlier this month, it shipped an app meant to help Android users find and identify AirTags around them. It’s called Tracker Detect, and you can download it free from Google’s Play Store.

Getting started is simple enough: Once you’ve installed the app, accept the terms of service and hit the “Scan” button. From there, Tracker Detect will — in theory, anyway — display all the Bluetooth trackers in range. If you select one of the search results, you’re given the option to wait for 10 minutes and tell the tracker to play a sound to help you find it. When you manage to find it and can confirm it doesn’t belong to you, report your findings to local law enforcement if you don’t feel safe.

What’s the catch?

The fact that this app exists at all is a step in the right direction — Apple has made only a handful of Android apps over the years. But here’s the rub: Tracker Detect isn’t nearly as helpful as the protections built into Apple’s own devices.

That’s because, unlike on an iPhone, Android users need to open the app and manually scan for nearby trackers — it can’t just passively search in the background while you’re doing other things.

As a result, there’s no way your Android phone can proactively warn you that someone might be trying to track you. If you’re not specifically choosing to open the app and search for nearby AirTags, you’ll never find any — even if one of them is already being used to monitor you. And that has some people concerned.

“I just downloaded the Tracker Detect app, hoping to have an app that will alert me if an AirTag was placed on my vehicle or in my belongings,” wrote user Danielle McClenahan in a Play Store review of the Tracker Detect app. “It’s extremely concerning that as a company Apple hasn’t figured out a solution to this problem. I should not have to choose when to scan.”

“To be forced to use an app to prevent ubiquitous spying is beyond the pale,” a reviewer named Rob Bono writes. “Android needs to detect AirTags at the OS [operating system] level.”

Jason Hong, a professor who focuses on privacy and security at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, agrees that Apple’s approach here is far from ideal.

“The problem is that people have to know to install this app if they’re running Android,” he said. “Then, they have to remember to run the app. And then they have to remember to do it periodically as well, too, because you never know when you might be starting to be tracked. So you start to have a combination of problems.”

Still, Hong added, it’s “about as good as Apple could do” for now, partly because of limits on what the company can do inside Android — a complex operating system it has no control over. On the whole, though, Hong argued that people would be better off if Apple worked on long-term solutions, like figuring out how to punish people who use AirTags in ways they shouldn’t be, and working with Google to build tracker detection features right into future versions of Android.

The problem is, it’s not clear how eager either company is to figure this out together. Google declined to comment on whether it would be open to collaborating with Apple on tracker detection features. Apple also declined to comment on whether it had considered partnering with Google or building an always-on scanning feature into the Tracker Detect app.

“AirTag provides industry leading privacy and security features, and we are extending new capabilities to Android devices,” Apple spokesperson Alex Kirschner said. “We are raising the bar on privacy for our users and the industry, and hope others will follow.”

Ideally, both companies would recognize that tracking is a growing cause for concern and figure out a way to work together on this. For now, though, if you’re an Android user concerned about being tracked, your best option might be to install Tracker Detect and run a scan once in a while. And if you use Android and weren’t concerned about tracking before, well — it might be smart to follow that advice, too, just in case.

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