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In Adams’ view, the ability to deploy AirTags to keep tabs on people without their knowledge is a feature—not a bug. The mayor joked that he might use an AirTag to keep continual tabs his own child. “I used to tell me son ‘make sure you come straight home after school,’ and I find out he goes to another borough. Now I can track him.”

Notably, the NYPD says it will not have access to any of the tracking data unless a car owner reports their vehicle stolen and opts to willingly share the AirTag info with police. “This is not a centralized tracking system where we are in charge of tracking someone’s car. If an owner gets a notification that their car is moving without their authorization, they would notify the police department, who would automatically use that information with the owner’s permission to track the stolen vehicle,” Adams explained.

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Why is NYC doing this?

A recent nationwide uptick in car jackings hasn’t spared NYC. In 2022, more than 10,000 vehicles were reported stolen—up from about 8,000 thefts reported in 2021 and ~7,000 in 2020, according to historic complaint data from the NY Police Department. The average number of reported car thefts in NYC over the past 10 years is about 6,700 annually, far below 2022's number. Moreover, data from the first three months of 2023 suggests this year’s auto theft rate is on track to exceed last year’s. Between just the start of January and end of March, people filed nearly 3,000 stolen vehicle complaints with the NYPD.

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Adams and other city officials blame the increase largely on social media and a security weakness inherent to certain models of Hyundai and Kia cars. “There’s a manufacture’s defect in both those autos,” John Chell, NYPD patrol chief, said during the Sunday briefing. “The TikTok challenge that came out in July of ‘22 is definitely, without a doubt, driving that issue when it comes to some of our youth taking these cars,” he added.

A 2022 TikTok trend known as the “Kia Challenge” has led to a large number of instructional videos circulating on the internet that demonstrate how to easily start some Hyundai and Kia cars using only a screwdriver and USB cord. The “Kia Challenge” phenomenon forced both impacted car manufacturers to roll out software updates and offer free steering wheel locks. Still though, thefts persist.

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What could go wrong?

Relying on AirTags to alleviate the problem may not be as straightforward as Adams and the NYPD have made it out to seem. For one, the free AirTags program is only accessible to people with iPhones. Then there’s Apple’s own mechanisms meant to foil such device uses.

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Because of reports of AirTag misuse and ongoing safety concerns, Apple has instituted updates meant to make it much harder for AirTags to go undetected when separated from their owners. If an AirTag is out of range of its owner’s iPhone for more than a few hours, the device begins to make a chirping sound. Plus, iPhones will automatically alert users with an onscreen message if an unfamiliar AirTag is moving around with them. There’s also an app to help Android users detect unwanted AirTags as well. In theory, any of these security features could alert car thieves to the presence of an AirTag in a vehicle and let them know that they’re being tracked.

Gizmodo reached out to both the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information and Apple with questions, but did not hear back by time of publication.