AirTags - The Good, The Bad, and the Future of Tracking Devices

As AirTags gain popularity, this seemingly convenient technology also has plenty of growing concerns surrounding privacy and security. Players in the tracking device market must stay two steps ahead to successfully manage the fallout of product misuse.

First Published 2nd May 2023

AirTags - The Good, The Bad, and the Future of Tracking Devices

Hide and seek.

4 min read  |  Reflare Research Team

The Disorientated Tracker

Apple's AirTags have undeniably revolutionised how we keep track of our personal belongings through the utilisation of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. This innovative gadget effortlessly connects to keys, wallets, backpacks, and more, allowing users to locate their possessions using the "Find My" app on their iPhones.

Despite their convenience and popularity, AirTags also pose various security and privacy concerns that must be addressed. In this comprehensive analysis, we explore the features of AirTags, their competitors, and the challenges surrounding privacy and security in the ever-evolving tracking device market.

Features and Advancements

At the core of AirTags' functionality is the combination of BLE and Ultra-Wideband technology, enabled by the built-in U1 chip. This advanced technology allows for more accurate location tracking, making it easier for users to locate their belongings. Additionally, AirTags have a built-in speaker to facilitate auditory identification, further enhancing the user experience.

The device's popularity has soared since its launch, with users finding practical applications in various aspects of their lives.

For instance, the New York Police Department (NYPD) recently recommended that citizens place AirTags in their vehicles to assist in locating stolen cars. The small yet powerful devices have proven invaluable in such situations, as vehicle owners can collaborate with law enforcement to recover their property.

This successful application of AirTags has inspired further exploration of their potential uses, such as tracking personal safety devices, luggage, or even pets. The limitless possibilities have captured the attention of consumers and technology enthusiasts alike.

The New Kids on the Block

Apple's success in the tracking device market has inevitably attracted competitors. Google is rumoured to be developing its own tracking device, potentially named "Nest Tag," expected to be unveiled at the I/O 2023 event. The Nest Tag is said to feature a speaker, Bluetooth LE, and Ultra-Wideband (UWB) connectivity. Other key players in the market include Tile and Samsung's Galaxy SmartTag.

Each competitor offers unique features, making it essential for consumers to evaluate which device best aligns with their needs. While Apple's AirTags seamlessly integrate with iPhones, other brands such as Tile and Samsung's SmartTag may provide better compatibility for Android users. As the market continues to expand, it is anticipated that innovative features and options will emerge to cater to a diverse range of consumers.

The Challenge of Cloning

Recent developments have raised concerns about the security of AirTags, as researchers have successfully cloned the devices using a Raspberry Pi Pico. The findings presented at the IEEE's 2022 Symposium on Security and Privacy demonstrated that the researchers could replicate an AirTag using a Pi Pico. Although this discovery is intriguing from a technical standpoint, it raises questions about the potential misuse of cloned devices.

One potential issue arising from the cloning of AirTags is the creation of counterfeit devices, which could lead to confusion and be utilised for nefarious purposes. As with any technology, it is crucial to consider the implications of cloning and its potential impact on the overall security of these devices.

The Dark Side of the Coin

Despite the convenience and practicality of AirTags, addressing the serious security and privacy concerns surrounding their use is essential. There have been reports of AirTags being employed for stalking and even being linked to murder cases in the U.S. cities of Akron and Indianapolis. These incidents have prompted increased scrutiny from the cybersecurity community.

Legislators in Ohio have taken note of these issues and are considering criminalising the use of AirTags and other tracking devices for stalking purposes. Under Senate Bill 100, those convicted could face penalties of up to $1,000 in fines or six months of imprisonment. Legislation like this could serve as a deterrent for would-be stalkers and discourage the misuse of AirTags.

In another case, researchers discovered that the firmware of AirTags could be modified, potentially enabling malicious actors to alter anti-stalking alerts or disable the speaker. This vulnerability raises significant concerns, as it could make it even easier for individuals to exploit AirTags for malicious purposes.

Addressing the Concerns

Apple has acknowledged the security and privacy issues associated with AirTags and has taken steps to address them. The company has implemented safety features such as notifying users if an unknown AirTag is detected nearby, and causing the device to emit a beeping sound when separated from its owner for an extended period.

An Apple spokesperson has also emphasised that the company works with law enforcement agencies to track down AirTags used for criminal purposes. Apple reiterated that AirTags were designed to locate personal belongings, not to track people or someone else's property. The company hopes its proactive system for alerting users of unwanted tracking will set a precedent for other manufacturers.

However, additional efforts are needed to ensure the privacy and safety of AirTag users. As Eva Galperin, Director of Cyber Security at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, pointed out, creating a valuable device for tracking stolen items also inadvertently makes an ideal tool for stalking. Apple and other manufacturers must continue to develop and improve safety features, while users should remain vigilant and informed about the potential risks associated with tracking devices.

The Future of AirTags and Tracking Devices

AirTags and their competitors have undoubtedly made our lives more convenient by helping us keep track of our belongings. However, as we have seen, serious concerns exist about how these devices could be misused, and it is imperative to address these issues proactively.

As the market for tracking devices continues to expand, manufacturers, legislators, and users must collaborate to ensure the safety and security of these devices. By staying informed and understanding the potential risks and benefits, consumers can enjoy the convenience of AirTags and similar devices while minimising the potential harm they may cause.

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