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Apple outlines plan to make its AirTag trackers easier to find

New safety features will make unwanted tracking more difficult, but it’s unclear when the software update will arrive

An AirTag pairs with its owner's iPhone, which gets secure updates about its whereabouts through the Find My app. (Jonathan Baran/TWP)
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Apple’s $29 AirTags were originally meant to help people keep tabs on objects that are frequently misplaced, like keys and luggage. Sometimes that even includes cars. But the potential for more insidious use was apparent from day one.

Since they went on sale last year, multiple reports have surfaced describing how AirTags have been used to locate people instead of things. To combat that kind of unwanted tracking, Apple outlined changes designed to dial down these tiny trackers’ potential for abuse in a statement released Thursday.

“AirTag was designed to help people locate their 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 said.

These changes won’t manifest until Apple releases updates for its iOS and iPadOS software, and the company would not confirm exactly when those updates will become available. That said, the improvements Apple plans to make will arrive in more than one wave. Here’s how AirTags will change, and a rough idea of when it’ll happen.

Apple’s AirTag trackers made it frighteningly easy to ‘stalk’ me in a test

Quick fixes

To start, Apple plans to include more pointed warnings about unwanted tracking when customers go through the setup process for AirTags on their iPhones and iPads. Those warnings will also make clear that law enforcement officials can “request identifying information” about the owners of specific AirTags if they’re turned in by someone who thinks they’ve been tracked.

That same software update should also make the “Unknown Accessory Detected” alerts some people have encountered less common. These are sometimes triggered when people walk around with their AirPods, or spend time around someone else’s. If your iPhone or iPad can tell that the questionable device nearby is actually a pair of AirPods, Apple’s Find My app will identify them as such, not as “unknown” accessories.

Here's how to search for Apple's helpful -- and unsettling -- AirTag trackers.

Long-term changes

Apple also said it is “investigating” changes for future software updates to be released later this year, many of which will make AirTags easier for (some) people to locate.

People who own an iPhone 11 or newer, for example, will be able to use the Find My app’s Precision Finding feature — a full-screen compass that directs you to nearby AirTags — to home in on Apple trackers that don’t belong to them. And while people who receive unwanted tracking alerts can already make unknown AirTags easier to spot by forcing them to play an alert tone, those sounds will become louder after a future update.

Apple also said it would adjust the “logic” that defines when an AirTag secretly stowed in a person’s car, bag or coat pocket starts to make its presence known. Right now, AirTags start chirping and pushing alerts to nearby phones after a window of eight to 24 hours away from its owner. Apple says it plans to alert users “earlier,” though it didn’t specify how much earlier.

Unsurprisingly, there’s one key word missing from Apple’s statement: Android. While some of these changes will make AirTags easier to find regardless of a person’s smartphone choice, Apple’s homemade Tracker Detect app for Android still requires people to manually search for nearby AirTags. For the millions of people in the United States who use Android phones and tablets, that means reliably finding AirTags could still be tricky.

“It is a step in the right direction,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity for the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. “But I’m still hoping that Apple and Google will cooperate to bring Android’s AirTag detection capabilities into parity with the iPhone. If you exist outside of the Apple ecosystem, your chances of noticing that you are being tracked with an AirTag are still significantly reduced compared to that of iPhone owners.”

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