Tracking devices like the Apple AirTag have gotten increasing attention recently, as a tool used by malicious actors to track unsuspecting victims. It’s not the first device able to do what it does – there are Tiles and other similar products out there. Nevertheless, anecdotal reports and news stories abound, with breathless tales of an innocent woman (it’s always a woman somehow) accidentally finding an Airtag on their car or in a purse or coat pocket. They almost always come with commentary about the evils of technology and how one must always be on alert for potential stalkers and robbers. Clearly, being secretly followed is an enormous security risk, not to mention enormously scary, so let’s talk about it.
Logic doesn’t always enter into fear, but knowing how likely or unlikely you are to meet a particular danger may help you assess it with the thinking part of your brain instead of the reacting part of your brain. That’s not to say that the reacting part of your brain is wrong or shouldn’t be listened to, but it’s good to have an idea of whether that feeling is congruent with the thinking part of your brain. Knowing that many bad guys often aren’t interested in doing more work than necessary to get their score might help you decide that it’s worth doing the work to not really worry about this particular danger. After all, it would be easier for them to just pick a car or a person to follow the old-fashioned way, especially if you aren’t individually interesting to them as a target. The math changes if you drive a particularly expensive car, though, or you if already know that you have a harasser or stalker or have another specific risk factor. Attempting to consider what it might be for you can be helpful as you work to decide how much concern makes sense.
Be aware too that traditional and social media sometimes latch on to trends that aren’t really. These stories pick up steam because they play on one of those lizard brain fears, the kind of fear that urban myths also exploit. There may be a kernel of truth in them, an actual incident, an actual victim, maybe even a handful of them. But there may also be people sharing entirely made-up stories, to capture a piece of the viral attention, not to mention recycled articles that make up in volume of posting for thinness of underlying information. Are AirTags actually being used to follow potential victims on a wide basis? Following the news and checking out posts that have been shared from friend to friend about a friend of a friend might not be the best way to judge.
That said, it can still be reasonable to protect yourself from the possibility, however slim, especially if you can do so in a way that isn’t particularly disruptive of your life or that would be wise for you to do regardless. With the AirTag threat, that means learning what they look like and the sounds they might make when too far from their owner’s iPhone for too long. You might also make sure that if you have an iPhone, your Find My app is properly set up to detect unknown AirTags moving with you, or if you have an Android phone that you download and regularly check the Apple Tracker Detect app. If you’d like to go one step further, then you might also get the Tile app and use the Scan and Secure feature once it becomes available, to check on another popular device similar to the AirTag. Those are all simple measures that won’t take a lot of effort or mental energy to implement, and can help you ride the line between careful and paranoid.
Then take some time to work on the kinds of security measures that are a good idea anyway, whether or not you are being tracked by an electronic device. For instance, keep an eye on your jackets and bags when you are out in public, both so it’s harder for someone to slip a tracking device into your things and so it’s harder for them to just flat-out steal them or steal from them. Then when you’re back home, make sure your doors are locked and that your place is otherwise difficult to break into, and that you’re being watchful in transitional spaces like those between your front door and your car. While you can’t be fully vigilant everywhere all the time, focusing on your home sanctuary and places you know may be potentially problematic will cover the majority of what you need to remain safe. That’s because a bad guy coming to hurt you or take from you has to not only find you, but get to you or your things. It would be better if they didn’t know where to find you, but if they do (and they don’t need trackers to), you can still slow them down or stop them. Even the smallest roadblocks can be highly effective, especially if the bad guy doesn’t have a personal reason to want to harm you individually.
You may legitimately have reason to fear a particular potential attacker. I’m not trying to minimize that possibility, and there are other precautions that you’ll need to take if that’s the case. If not, however, then these steps might be a better start for you to stay safe from this “viral crime trend” than panicking unnecessarily.