Google, Apple gear to raise tracking tag stalker alarm

After years of people being victimized, it's about time

Google and Apple are rolling out an anti-stalking feature for Android 6.0+ and iOS 17.5 that will issue an alert if some scumbag is using a gadget like an AirTag or similar to clandestinely track the user.

Basically, if someone places a hidden tracking tag in your bag, car, or something else that you take with you, and your phone or tablet detects that unpaired Bluetooth-based tag as you move around, it's a clear sign someone's trying to stalk your location using the secret tag, and your own device will alert you to it.

It's a continuation of the tech giants' work on an industry-wide specification for Bluetooth tracking devices, announced last year. And it follows allegations of stalkers using these trackers to harass and even kill victims.

Apple, Amazon, and Tile devices have all allegedly been used to facilitate stalking users and violating their privacy with Bluetooth tracking tags.

Apple's Find My network already has a feature that will send an alert to users if there is an unauthorized AirTag moving with them – implying that someone has planted a tracker somewhere, such as in a bag or hidden in a vehicle. This latest update – and iOS 17.5 is out this week – will mean they get a similar alert if any kind of supported Bluetooth tracker is detected – not just AirTags.

Android users have been able to get similar AirTag-detection, but it presently requires downloading a separate app specifically for AirTags. The collaboration on a universal standard will eliminate that hassle. In other words, Android will also flag up any supported tracker tag without the need for a separate app.

Google's blog post on Monday emphasized the cross-platform cooperation. "With this new capability, Android users will now get a 'Tracker traveling with you' alert on their device if an unknown Bluetooth tracking device is seen moving with them over time, regardless of the platform the device is paired with."

If a user gets this alert, it means that a stalker's Bluetooth tracker is following them. According to Apple and Google, users will then be offered assistance in locating the widget (by having the tracker make a noise) and - if possible - disabling them.

According to Apple's announcement, other Bluetooth tag manufacturers – including Chipolo, eufy, Jio, Motorola and Pebblebee – have committed that future trackers will support the anti-stalking alert. Samsung and Tile have endorsed the spec, too, but there's no word on when their products will be updated with the privacy feature.

For now, Apple and Google say this anti-stalking mechanism works with widgets that are an "AirTag, Find My accessory, or other industry specification-compatible Bluetooth tracker."

"Bluetooth trackers like AirTags are great for finding stuff. However, they've always creeped us out with how they can be – and are – abused for stalking," Mozilla Foundation's Jen Caltrider, program director for its Privacy Not Included project, told The Register.

This added protection, she added, is "long overdue."

Tile started selling Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) wireless tracking tags ten years ago. More recently, in 2021, Samsung introduced its Galaxy SmartTag and Apple introduced its AirTag. Shortly after, reports of stalkers abusing these devices to track – and sometimes physically harm – their victims began popping up.

"The fact that these Big Tech giants are still working on a public industry specification for these Bluetooth trackers that have been around for over three years now says they care more about profit than protecting people – they'll get around to the safety features as an afterthought," Caltrider argued, noting that Mozilla found similar problems with newer car tracking and monitoring technology.

"I really wish the smart people at these companies would think through how their technologies could be used to harm the most vulnerable before they launch them," Caltrider added.

EFF director of cybersecurity Eva Galperin told The Register the move by Apple and Google is "a very good start." But she pointed out that the standard to track the trackers also raises its own privacy concerns – which Matthew Green, a cryptographer and professor at Johns Hopkins University in the US, and fellow researchers referenced in a September paper last year.

"On one hand, yes, you will be able to protect people from being stalked using AirTags," Galperin noted. "It's very good that people will be getting always-on alerts, no matter what kind of phone they have. But if you are creating a tracking system that allows people to be able to know where all AirTags are and who they belong to, that is also a very serious privacy problem."

In that paper, the academics propose a cryptographic fix, which they say balances user privacy and stalker detection. "My hope is that Google and Apple will implement [Green et al's] recommendations," Galperin added.

"All manufacturers of physical trackers need to step up and make sure that their trackers have mitigations that cannot be turned off," she continued. "But it also needs to be done in a careful, thoughtful manner that does not create an entirely new network for tracking people who have trackers that they're using on their phones." ®

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