Apple and Google announce anti-stalking initiative for Bluetooth trackers

There’s a dark side to  Bluetooth trackers, which the arrival of Apple’s AirTags has uncovered (Apple)
There’s a dark side to Bluetooth trackers, which the arrival of Apple’s AirTags has uncovered (Apple)

Bluetooth trackers are in theory a simple and elegant way of protecting keys, wallets and other personal effects against loss or theft.

But there’s a dark side to them, which the arrival of Apple’s AirTags has uncovered. If you can use Bluetooth trackers to keep tabs on possessions, you can also use them to track people, as several high-profile stalking cases have demonstrated.

Some tracker makers have tried to act on this. iPhones, for example, will alert you if an AirTag has been nearby for an extended period.

But it’s not a cross-platform solution. If you’re an Android owner, the AirTag tracking app will spot nearby AirTags. However, not only do you need to know the app exists, but you also have to use it proactively. It’s not something that will always be searching in the background, leaving Android owners comparatively vulnerable.

Now Apple and Google have announced that they’re working together on an anti-stalking initiative to counter the “misuse of Bluetooth location-tracking devices for unwanted tracking”.

The proposed industry specification will “allow Bluetooth location-tracking devices to be compatible with unauthorised tracking detection and alerts across iOS and Android platforms,” Apple says.

The company adds that other third-party Bluetooth tracker makers — Samsung, Tile, Chipolo, eufy and Pebblebee — have all “expressed support” for the draft specification. This “offers best practices and instructions for manufacturers, should they choose to build these capabilities into their products.”

“This collaboration and the resulting standards are a significant step forward,” said Erica Olsen, senior director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s Safety Net project.

“These new standards will minimise opportunities for abuse of this technology and decrease the burden on survivors in detecting unwanted trackers. We are grateful for these efforts and look forward to continuing to work together to address unwanted tracking and misuse.”

Of course, such increases to visibility intrinsically make Bluetooth trackers less useful for another intended purpose: protecting against theft. If a thief can easily detect a hidden Bluetooth tracker, they can easily find and remove it, preventing the owner from being reunited with the stolen goods.

This is why Tile — one of the companies that have expressed an interest in the proposed industry specification — recently announced “anti-theft mode”.

This makes its trackers invisible to anyone but the owner, but anybody who enables it will have to submit a government-issued ID and a biometric scan tp the company. If they’re later convicted of stalking via Tile, they will be on the hook for a $1 million (£800,000) fine, the company says.

How enforceable this is in practice is debatable. However, it makes Tile one of the few companies trying to square the circle of making Bluetooth trackers both stalker-proof and thief-proof.

Apple and Google’s announcement suggests that the industry as a whole is, for now, prioritising making life difficult for stalkers, rather than concerning itself too much with theft.