AirTag Follow-Up

They’re not an anti-theft device

Seeing the AirTag introduction on the 20th was pretty interesting. Apple didn’t just pitch it as a lost item tracker, they showed off how it works with ultra-wide-band-capable iPhones to provide their “precision tracking” that lets you find items with a virtual compass that is pointing to where the AirTag is, and talked a lot on how it won’t be able to be used for nefarious purposes. One thing they didn’t talk about was using the AirTag as an anti-theft device because it pretty clearly isn’t one if you see any of the marketing around it. The AirTag is designed to be visible, not hidden, and isn’t permanently attached to the item you don’t want to lose. There’s nothing preventing someone from taking off the AirTag and chucking it in the trash or just taking the battery out.

Now, with reviews and first impressions popping up along with support questions about it on public forums, it’s clear that not everyone understands that the AirTag isn’t an anti-theft device. I don’t blame anyone for getting confused about the purpose, but you’ll see people asking about using an AirTag to track vehicles. There was a trade-off and whatever team at Apple designed this product decided that it was about lost items and not stolen items, and especially that the AirTag is not going to help people abuse other people which also made it impossible to work for an anti-theft scenario.

If you lose an item with an AirTag on it, keys or a backpack or a purse (bizarrely, the AirTag is too thick to fit comfortably inside of most wallets), and someone who isn’t a thief finds the AirTag, they might be able to get everything back to you.

Unfortunately, I’m also not entirely certain that the AirTags will work well for their intended purpose of even helping to find lost items. Lets talk about a few scenarios.

  • If an Android or iPhone user (with NFC in their device, which is probably most of them at this point) holds it up to the back of their phone, the NFC antenna inside the AirTag will give that user the option to go to a website, an Apple site, and there they will see any short message and phone number you leave for someone who finds your AirTag (and whatever it is attached to) but only if the AirTag is in lost mode.
  • If a thief finds the item the AirTag is attached to they can take out the battery in the AirTag, it is a very easy process and the battery is a standard CR2032. It’s also trivially easy to just remove the AirTag and throw it in the trash and take the rest, it won’t do anything to prevent that. The AirTag will also beep after some time of you not being near it. That beeping is there so that the AirTag can’t be used to track someone who doesn’t want to be tracked by the owner of the AirTag.
  • If someone who finds the lost item doesn’t know what an AirTag is, and doesn’t have an iPhone, it isn’t very likely you’ll get your item back. There’s nothing physically on the outside of the AirTag that makes it clear exactly what it is, or identifies you as the owner of the AirTag, or has your contact information. That’s a good thing in the event that you don’t want the AirTag linked to you in the case of your civil rights being violated. It’s a bad thing for you getting your AirTag and the lost item back. Nothing on it says “hold it up to a device with NFC to get information” though when it eventually starts beeping someone might be curious enough to read the tiny lettering on the back that identifies the device as an AirTag and look up what that means. You can still put a luggage tag on something if you want that backup way for someone to help you, but I think a lot of people won’t expect to need both the AirTag and other identification.
  • If you lose the item with the AirTag attached and are near enough to find it again before someone else gets it, you can definitely do that a little bit easier using the “Find My” network that uses Bluetooth Low-Energy to enable almost any modern Apple device to (supposedly privately and anonymously) automatically help locate your lost item and AirTag. If you leave something at a restaurant or a park that means there is a chance it’ll continue to update its location in the Find My app when you get home and realize it’s missing as long as someone else with an Apple device is near it. Once you’re within a certain range for the UWB radio to take over you can enter the precision tracking mode and have a very good shot at locating it. You can also make the AirTag beep when you’re within Bluetooth range of it which helps you find it and prove that the lost item is yours.

I appreciate that the AirTag was set up to prevent it from being used by abusive people, and even if there was an anti-theft purpose for the AirTag it would be a mistake for Apple to encourage that usage when it is clear that law enforcement values property over life. The AirTag is also Apple’s cheapest device at $30 for one or $100 for four. That’s about the same price as similar devices from Tile and Chipolo but of course you can set up and use a Tile or Chipolo device with either any kind of smart phone.

The biggest downside to the Tile devices these days is that they charge a subscription for features like letting your friends help you find your stuff. Chipolo mercifully doesn’t do that, but neither of them will have the network effect for finding things like Apple will. In comparison to those companies it is also much more likely that they would be acquired by another company and give that other company your private location data (assuming they’re not selling that data already.)