An Apple AirTag was used to stalk a Sports Illustrated model. Thieves are placing AirTags on cars to track them home, where they can later be stolen. If you’re like me, you may have been freaked out by those recent headlines pushed your way. But since a lot of headlines can be overblown, I decided to experiment with an AirTag to see if the headlines are justified by tracking my wife and kids.
In full disclosure: I’m an Android user and I’ve used Tile devices for sometime. When the headlines started to build recently, I heard Apple fans throw out whataboutisms by saying “Tile does it too! (and Samsung!!!)”
I dismissed Tile as being much of a threat since my experience with Tile was often about it not working more than it working. How can a technology that can’t find my misplaced portable SSD inside my home be used to track someone 20 miles away? Still, I decided to include a Tile Pro (a 2020 model with a new battery) and a shiny new AirTag in my testing. I did this with my family’s knowledge, and I also followed them via a phone-based GPS tracking app to compare with what I was seeing in the Tile and Apple Find My app.
Before we go too far you need to know how the AirTag and Tile Pro work. Both are very simple devices that emit a Bluetooth beacon every few minutes via radio frequencies. That beacon reports the last location of the phone, tablet, or IoT device that it pinged.
For Tile, any other phone running the Tile App or any Amazon Sidewalk (Echo, etc) device will report if they’ve received the beacon and relay the information. The AirTag does the same but with the key difference of a billion iOS devices that can be pinged. The trackers do NOT contain GPS locators, but instead rely on the phone or Amazon Sidewalk device’s reported location. There is also a short-range, high-precision locator feature on newer trackers but that’s only when you’re very close to the tag. Most of the coarse location information is done using Bluetooth.
With all that out of the way, I tracked my family with my AirTag and Tile Pro in a variety of scenarios.
Tracking device for a tail: Near useless
For my tests, I tested with the trackers inside the car in a cup holder. And, uh, also taped to the bumper to simulate my life-long fantasy of being PI Jim Rockford tailing someone.
I’ve actually tried to tail someone the old fashioned way as reporter and lost them within a few minutes. If I had planted an AirTag or Tile Pro on their car, it wouldn’t have helped me.
The AirTag and Tile Pro simply don’t update information often enough nor come into contact with other devices at the right time to be useful. When the location is updated, it’s usually so out of date the actual person might be a mile or miles away. At freeway speeds you’ll just never receive any updates most of the time as well.
Tracking you to your home: Scary, scary effective
Actively tracking you at freeways speeds is pointless but if the only thing someone wants to know is where you live, Apple’s AirTag is scary effective. But indeed, so is the Tile Pro. Again, my experience with my Tile Pros have been pretty much hit or miss for finding lost stuff in my home. So I was quite surprised to see the Tile Pro work reasonable well as a tracking device.
I had expected the porous Tile network to be so ineffective that the Tile Pro would provide no useful information at all. For example, in a 20 mile radius of my metropolitan home, the app reports roughly 5,000 Tile users. That’s 5,000 people running the app that can spot a missing Tile in a city of 400,000. That’s not a lot, but its partnership with Amazon appears to have made a difference. Any Echo or Amazon doorbell, security camera, or other Bluetooth-enabled device can also spot the Tile and report its last location. It works well enough that it feels like a Tile Pro planted on your car could at least get someone within a few blocks of you. In my testing, the Tile Pro was spotted by a neighbor’s house 150-yards away.
I’m confident Apple’s AirTag could track you within a house or two of where you end up thanks the massive network of iPhones. Find My, for example, reported my AirTag to be located inside the neighboring house, where I know the occupants use iPhones.
As a way to stalk someone walking around: Scary effective
The Sports Illustrated model that was tracked said that the culprit planted an AirTag in her jacket to follow her walk home. To simulate that experience, I placed both the Tile Pro and the AirTag in my daughter’s backpack and watched her movements.
The Tile Pro, again, did far better than I expected in a dense metropolitan area where there are just enough Amazon Sidewalk devices and Tile-enabled phones. But it still paled in comparison to the AirTag, which gave me updates on my daughter’s location that let me pinpoint her location by perhaps 25 feet to 50 feet and seemly updated every time I checked. The reason? My daughter has a Tile but the app is no longer active because she became frustrated with it just not working. If she had the Tile app running, the location updates could have been better. But she uses an iPhone that the AirTag would use to update its location.
Again: An AirTag doesn’t have GPS. It relies on your phone to report its location back to you. In a dense area, it’s unlikely you’re ever out of radio range of an iPhone reporting that AirTag’s last location.
This is scary, Apple (and Tile) need to do something!
After seeing just how scary effective the AirTag (and to an extent, Tile) is, you might think I’m for Apple potentially Nerfing its use further. In fact, some would probably call for the technology to be outright banned. That’s an understandable knee-jerk reaction many people would have after seeing the latest 60-second TV news broadcast or newspaper story on an AirTag “used to follow someone home!” These occurrences shouldn’t be made light of and they are a legitimate problem. But they are also legitimately criminal activities too. Many states have laws that prevent electronic tracking of a person without their knowledge. I recommend you read Macworld’s excellent guide on how to find and neutralize unwanted AirTags that may be tracking you.
After a few days of stewing it over though, I’ve come to realize that the AirTag is far more useful as a tool that works in your favor should a crime occur, rather than it being used against you.
The latest FBI crime stats report 721,885 cars were stolen in 2019. The National Insurance Crime Bureau shows 53,111 motorcycles were stolen in 2020. Your odds of recovering a stolen car seem to range from 50 percent to 80 percent depending on the state and reporting organization. Getting a stolen motorcycle back is pretty rare as well. Your bicycle or stolen lawn mower? Forget about it.
What I do know from living in a high-crime metropolitan city is that stolen cars either get stripped down for parts, lodged against an abutment, or abandoned in an area where someone else decides to strip it for parts or use it as a bathroom.
If you’re lucky, it just sits on the street until it accumulates enough tickets and a towing agency takes it away, leaving you to pay several thousand dollars in impound fees. Maybe you’ll get your Creedence Clearwater Revival tape back, but in the end, the odds of getting your car returned—especially in a timely matter—is terrible. You could pay a few hundred dollars for a great system such as a LoJack, but are you really going to LoJack a jalopy?
But for the low price of $29, you can basically tag your car, bicycle, motorcycle, outdoor grill, or generator and track it down should it ever get “misplaced.” In fact, it’s already popular to tag pets with AirTags to track them down should they run off. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind it if someone could figure out a way to make an AirTag withstand the heat of a catalytic converter so thieves and the location of the shops that buy those stolen catalytic converters could be reported to the police.
Apple and Tile are likely uncomfortable with the trackers being used this way since they’re always thinking about the liability that could come their way. Apple has already made some changes to start to address AirTag stalking concerns. Good! I don’t care what Apple or Tile think, though, because despite the months of scary headlines—this one included—I’ve come to realize the AirTag and Tile are very powerful tools that can also be used for good, and not just abused for evil.
One of founding fathers of hardcore tech reporting, Gordon has been covering PCs and components since 1998.