Voices: Apple’s smart trackers are being weaponised against women – why are they still on sale?

·6-min read
 (Apple / Getty)
(Apple / Getty)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that men have found a way to exploit smart tech in order to harass women. Yet, a year on since the launch of its key finder, Apple has yet to tackle the sinister flaw in its shiny, coin-sized AirTag. The device enables stalkers and abusers to track their victims – and it’s having troubling consequences.

Designed to help locate misplaced items, an AirTag can be attached to your keys, bag, purse or luggage – the tracking possibilities are (depressingly) endless. The bluetooth-synced tracker will alert any nearby Apple device of its location, bringing up a map on your phone detailing its exact whereabouts.

We’ve all been there: you’re running late, frantically searching around the house for your keys, wishing that you could just ring them or hear them bleep. But that moment of inconvenience is hardly a life-or-death situation. What can be life-or-death, however, is being followed at night by a stranger or being under constant surveillance by an abusive partner. Yet these abhorrent acts are being made even easier with the rise in tracking technology, and Apple – along with other tech corporations that sell similar devices – are doing next to nothing about it.

Since they launched, multiple women have reported being stalked with Apple’s trackers after being pinged on their phone from an unknown AirTag device. A recent investigation by Motherboard found more than a hundred US police reports relating to the company’s key finder. One woman feared physical violence after realising an ex partner with a history of assault was tracking her every move. Another couldn’t work out how a man who she had taken a restraining order against kept finding out where she was, until she found an AirTag in her car. She reported being afraid that the perpetrator would assault or kill her.

Brooks Nader, a Sports Illustrated model, recently revealed that she was stalked by a complete stranger using an AirTag. She said in an Instagram post: "It was the scariest moment ever, and I just want everyone to be aware that this exists". TikTok user Kayla Malec also went viral last year after documenting herself finding one of the devices in her car.

Despite warnings from various technology experts and domestic abuse charities, Apple’s response to these harrowing accounts has fallen woefully short. Until June last year, there was a three-day delay in an AirTag beeping if it was separated from its owner. This means that victims could be stalked for a whole 72 hours before finding out.

In response to these concerns, Apple shortened this notification time, reducing it from three days to anywhere between eight and 24 hours. While this is an improvement, it’s still ample time for stalkers or domestic abusers to target their victims and simply does not reflect the urgency needed to tackle such a severe safeguarding issue.

Even worse, if victims don’t receive a notification on their phone that an unknown AirTag is tracking their location, they’ll have to rely on hearing it beep, a sound which many people have reported to be too quiet. Android users won’t receive a ping on their phone at all, leaving them even more vulnerable to stalking.

The only other measure that Apple has taken to reduce the risk of being stalked by an AirTag is to create a privacy warning message that every AirTag user will receive upon setting up the device. This is simply paying lip service to its critics without actually addressing the issue: a security message isn’t going to deter stalkers who can track people with complete ease.

The tech company launched another software update this week, but has yet to disclose any details on what it entails, meaning that, for now, all we’re stuck with is being alerted to stalkers in 8-24 hours and a poxy message that pops up on our phones warning us against harassment.

This isn’t just an Apple problem. Competitors including Tile and Samsung also sell key finders and have yet to come up with anything substantial to solve this potentially fatal flaw. Experts have warned that until there is an industry-wide approach to tackling stalking, people’s privacy will continue to be exploited.

In yet another move that proves just how tone-deaf these tech companies are when it comes to women’s safety, Samsung has been forced to apologise for a recent advert showing a woman going for a run at 2am through the streets of a city alone. The absurd campaign received backlash from women’s charities and inspired women to share their stories of being harassed while running. Why are women forced to mine their trauma time and time again in order to be kept safe?

Tech firms constantly evade responsibility when it comes to the safety of women online too: if we’re not being cyber flashed on the Tube, angry men are spewing misogyny our way on Twitter. As we become even more plugged into the digital space, these issues are only going to get worse. Women are already suffering sexual harassment in the metaverse, and that technology is still in its infancy.

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The AirTag fiasco is just the latest example of smart tech being weaponised against women. Victims of domestic abuse reported a rise in being monitored by smart speakers, video doorbells and tracker apps during Covid lockdowns, plunging them further into isolation and leaving them even more vulnerable to violence and coercive control.

The last thing women need is another thing to worry about while walking home at night. Yet here we are, frightened of being followed by tiny trackers in our pockets. Instead of holding tech corporations to account for their failings, the onus is always on women to protect themselves, as guides on “what to do when you’re being stalked by an AirTag” continue to crop up online. Abusers will find any avenue in which to harm their victims – smart trackers are simply enabling their behaviour.

Ultimately, women can’t win with tech: we’re either forced to use safety apps in the wake of women being murdered because the police can’t be trusted to protect us, or we’re followed by smart trackers while going about our day. I can’t help but question the need for these key finders given the frightening consequences they leave behind. It’s truly despicable to see abusers and stalkers seep into the smart tech space, and as a woman, I feel exhausted by the complete lack of urgency from companies like Apple who have a lot to answer for.

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