Apple’s AirTags are meant to help you effortlessly find your keys or track your luggage. But the same features that make them easy to deploy and inconspicuous in your daily life have also allowed them to be abused as a sinister tracking tool that domestic abusers and criminals can use to stalk their targets.
Over the past year, Apple has taken protective steps to notify iPhone and Android users if an AirTag is in their vicinity for a significant amount of time without the presence of its owner’s iPhone, which could indicate that an AirTag has been planted to secretly track their location. Apple hasn’t said exactly how long this time interval is, but to create the much-needed alert system, Apple made some crucial changes to the location privacy design the company originally developed a few years ago for its “Find My” device tracking feature. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, San Diego, say, though, that they’ve developed a cryptographic scheme to bridge the gap—prioritizing detection of potentially malicious AirTags while also preserving maximum privacy for AirTag users.
The Find My system uses both public and private cryptographic keys to identify individual AirTags and manage their location tracking. But Apple developed a particularly thoughtful mechanism to regularly rotate the public device identifier—every 15 minutes, according to the researchers. This way, it would be much more difficult for someone to track your location over time using a Bluetooth scanner to follow the identifier around. This worked well for privately tracking the location of, say, your MacBook if it was lost or stolen, but the downside of constantly changing this identifier for AirTags was that it provided cover for the tiny devices to be deployed abusively.
In reaction to this conundrum, Apple revised the system so an AirTag’s public identifier now only rotates once every 24 hours if the AirTag is away from an iPhone or other Apple device that “owns” it. The idea is that this way other devices can detect potential stalking, but won’t be throwing up alerts all the time if you spend a weekend with a friend who has their iPhone and the AirTag on their keys in their pockets.
In practice, though, the researchers say that these changes have created a situation where AirTags are broadcasting their location to anyone who’s checking within a 30- to 50-foot radius over the course of an entire day—enough time to track a person as they go about their life and get a sense of their movements.
“We had students walk through cities, walk through Times Square and Washington, DC, and lots and lots of people are broadcasting their locations,” says Johns Hopkins cryptographer Matt Green, who worked on the research with a group of colleagues, including Nadia Heninger and Abhishek Jain. “Hundreds of AirTags were not near the device they were registered to, and we’re assuming that most of those were not stalker AirTags.”