Apple’s AirTags and Samsung’s SmartTags this year joined an already crowded Bluetooth tracker market. These little devices attach to key rings, backpacks, and luggage or can be tucked inside a bag or attached to any other possession you’re afraid to lose, sending you alerts when it leaves your side and even enabling you to track down its last known location on a map.
Useful, right? But there are also very valid concerns about how these gadgets can be used to track people. The most common trackers made by Apple, Tile, etc. don’t have built-in GPS, so they can’t send out a constant beacon with their location, but they can be reported as lost, at which point other phones are enlisted anonymously to find them.
When you read about trackers like AirTags being misused to track people without their knowledge, this is how it’s done: It doesn’t take long for a tracker to leave the Bluetooth range of a the phone it’s connected to, but that individual can then mark the tracker as lost and get a report on its location courtesy of other users. This is handy if you’ve forgotten your phone in a bar, not so helpful if someone has slipped a tracker on your person or into your belongings without you realizing.
In the case of Apple, which has close to a billion devices activated on its Find My network, that behind-the-scenes pinging means you’ll probably get a rather precise pinpoint of the tracker’s location. Networks run by Apple’s competitors are much smaller, relying on users to have a companion app installed, but unwanted tracking could still be an issue.
The companies that make these trackers are very much aware of the potential problems. They’re pushing out more tools and safeguards to make it a lot harder to follow someone (or someone’s car, or someone’s bag) in this way. We’ll start with the latest on Apple AirTags, before covering some other types of trackers you might have.
AirTags have had some anti-stalking measures built in since the very beginning. Any AirTag that has become separated from its owner and that seems to be moving with you will cause an alert to appear on your iPhone—although Apple doesn’t specify how long it’s going to take for this to happen, and it doesn’t help Android users.
Apple also says that after “an extended period of time” (reported to be up to 24 hours), an AirTag that has traveled away from the person who originally registered it, and is on the move, will emit a sound. This offers some basic protection for both iPhone and Android users, but it’s not always going to work (it might be difficult to hear sounds from an AirTag hidden in your car, for example), and the timeframe for hearing that sound is pretty long.
The iOS 15.2 beta included an extra option in the Find My app, under the Items tab, labeled Items That Can Track Me. Tapping it showed nearby AirTags that had lost their owner and could be being pinged by the Apple device network, but it has vanished from the final version of iOS 15.2 that was pushed out to users. We’re assuming that it’s still being worked on and will hopefully show up soon.
Apple just introduced a new Tracker Detect app for Android users, available in the Google Play Store, that lets you manually search for unwanted AirTags. Tap Scan on the opening screen and the app starts to look around for a tracking device. Any AirTags or other Find My-compatible trackers that are near you and have been parted from their original owners will be listed, and you can prompt detected items to emit a sound to help you find them.
If you find an unknown AirTag near you, you can get more information about it by holding it against an iPhone or any NFC-enabled Android phone, tap the notification that shows up, and you’ll see the tracker’s serial number and whether or not it’s been marked as lost by its owner.
There are also third-party apps that will scan the area around you for low-energy Bluetooth devices—that is, devices that won’t pair in the normal way. They include LightBlue and BLE Scanner on the iPhone, and BLE Scanner and Bluetooth Scanner on Android. However, it’s difficult to tell exactly which devices might be trackers (AirTags, for example, change their Bluetooth IDs regularly as a privacy feature), and you’re likely to come up with a lot of results if you’re in a gadget-filled room or building.
Aside from AirTags, the biggest name in Bluetooth trackers is Tile, and these devices will soon be supported by a new anti-stalking feature called Scan and Secure, which is rolling out in 2022. It will make the process of looking for nearby Tiles much more straightforward as a built-in feature in the Tile app for Android and iOS.
“Created with guidance from an advocacy organization that are experts in this area, the new Scan and Secure feature will enable anyone with the Tile app (even if they don’t have an active Tile account) to easily scan for and detect nearby Tile devices and identify if an unknown device is near them,” explains Tile.
If you’re concerned about Samsung’s SmartTags, Samsung updated its SmartThings app for Android and iOS earlier this year with a new Unknown Tag Search feature, which will scour the nearby area for tags that aren’t registered to you but that are moving with you. It should be enough to detect any tags that are trying to keep tabs on where you are without your knowledge.
As you can tell, there’s a problem here: You have to download various apps to make sure you’re not being tracked by different brands of trackers. What’s more, none of these apps scan for trackers automatically—presumably to cut down on background processes and avoid destroying battery life—so you need to open and launch them all manually to look for devices.
The apps we mentioned in the AirTags section above all still apply, with the same caveats—it’s going to be difficult to identify individual trackers from the list if you’re in a busy, gadget-filled area. These apps are perhaps most useful when you’re some distance from civilization and can account for the devices appearing in the Bluetooth scanning app one by one (remember Bluetooth LE has a range of around 100 meters, or 328 feet).
If you’re concerned that someone is trying to track you, another approach is a decidedly more manual one: Check your bags, coat pockets, car seats, and other places where a tracker might be surreptitiously hidden. Technology has made it much easier for stalkers, abusers, and other predators to track and terrorize victims, and until there’s a better solution, a stop-gap combination of apps and awareness will hopefully keep you safe.
If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1. For anonymous, confidential help, 24/7, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).