Apple, Samsung, Tile urged to work together to prevent illicit use of tracking devices

An illustration of a woman being stalked
While AirTags have proved controversial, others have less privacy tools. Photo credit: Getty Images

AirTags have been singled out for their ability to track both people and objects without anyone being aware, but a privacy expert says it's not all on Apple to resolve the issue.

Erica Olsen, director for the National Network to End Domestic Violence's Safety Net Project in the US, told CNET that "there are going to be limitations as long as the solutions remain with individual companies".

A solution would require the likes of Tile, Samsung and Apple to work together with other companies who make similar devices to share information on how Bluetooth trackers are being exploited maliciously and on privacy safeguards that could be implemented.

"It would ensure that all companies are operating on the same data when developing tools for preventing or mitigating abuse," the website said.

Los Angeles lawyer Alyson Messenger, who works with domestic violence survivors, told the New York Times cases were "flying under the radar" and she knew of two women stalked by former partners with AirTags.

Messenger said there were other ways to track them, but that generally required spyware and access to the person's phone and passcode. 

"It's insidious because the devices are so discreet and unnoticeable. We suspect it is happening and victims don't know," she said.

While Airtags, SmartTags and Tiles are sold on the basis of finding lost things, not every tracking device is. 

LandAirSea advertises itself on Amazon as a personal GPS for "reliable tracking of people, vehicles and/or assets" and says it can be "discreetly" hidden. The LED lights on its devices can be disabled via an app so the device doesn't give away its location with flashing lights.

Since AirTags were first launched in May last year, Apple has slowly increased the levels of protection against illicit use after stark warnings about their danger were raised in news reports. 

Just last week it announced further changes that should allow people to identify if a tag is being used to track their movements without their knowledge earlier than before.

However, even without those coming changes, Apple already provides more safeguards than either Samsung or Tile or most other providers.

Those with iPhones are sent a notification if an unknown AirTag is moving with them. An alarm is also sounded after an unspecified time to help identify where they are.

When they are found, the company provides on-screen advice on how to decommission them.

Samsung's SmartTags have apps that let users manually scan for the trackers but there is no proactive alert or alarm as is offered with AirTags.

Tile, which has been on the market for nearly a decade, has both iOS and Android apps that allow owners to track their devices, but there are no currently no ways for non-Tile owners to scan for them.

In a statement a Tile spokesperson said that anyone using Tiles for tracking people could end up with a permanent ban from the company. According to website 9to5Mac, Tile does plan a similar app to Samsung's, but it also won't feature proactive alerts.

Meanwhile a New York Times journalist used various devices to track her husband, with his agreement, to test out the warnings the different trackers offered.

His conclusion?

"For all the bad press the AirTags have gotten, and as flaky as the detection mechanisms were, at least I was consistently getting notifications they were following me," he said.

"The privacy dangers of the other trackers were way worse."