Are Apple AirTags Being Used to Track People and Steal Cars?

On a Sunday night in September, Ashley Estrada was at a friend’s home in Los Angeles when she received a strange notification on her iPhone: “AirTag Detected Near You.”

An AirTag is a 1.26-inch disc with location-tracking capabilities that Apple started selling earlier this year as a way “to keep track of your stuff.” Ms. Estrada, 24, didn’t own one, nor did the friends she was with. The notification on her phone said the AirTag had first been spotted with her four hours earlier. A map of the AirTag’s history showed the zigzag path Ms. Estrada had driven across the city while running errands.

“I felt so violated,” she said. “I just felt like, who’s tracking me? What was their intent with me? It was scary.”

posted on TikTok, Reddit and Twitter about finding AirTags on their cars and in their belongings. There is growing concern that the devices may be abetting a new form of stalking, which privacy groups predicted could happen when Apple introduced the devices in April.

warned its community of the tracking potential of the devices after an AirTag was found on a car bumper. Apple complied with a subpoena for information about the AirTag in the case, which may lead to charges, West Seneca police said.

And in Canada, a local police department said that it had investigated five incidents of thieves placing AirTags on “high-end vehicles so they can later locate and steal them.”

Researchers now believe AirTags, which are equipped with Bluetooth technology, could be revealing a more widespread problem of tech-enabled tracking. They emit a digital signal that can be detected by devices running Apple’s mobile operating system. Those devices then report where an AirTag has last been seen. Unlike similar tracking products from competitors such as Tile, Apple added features to prevent abuse, including notifications like the one Ms. Estrada received and automatic beeping. (Tile plans to release a feature to prevent the tracking of people next year, a spokeswoman for that company said.)

stalkerware.

“Apple automatically turned every iOS device into part of the network that AirTags use to report the location of an AirTag,” Ms. Galperin said. “The network that Apple has access to is larger and more powerful than that used by the other trackers. It’s more powerful for tracking and more dangerous for stalking.”

Apple does not disclose sales figures, but the tiny $29 AirTags have proved popular, selling out consistently since their unveiling.

An Apple spokesman, Alex Kirschner, said in a statement that the company takes customer safety “very seriously” and is “committed to AirTag’s privacy and security.” He said the small devices have features that inform users if an unknown AirTag might be with them and that deter bad actors from using an AirTag for nefarious purposes.

“If users ever feel their safety is at risk, they are encouraged to contact local law enforcement who can work with Apple to provide any available information about the unknown AirTag,” Mr. Kirschner said.

Police could ask Apple to provide information about the owner of the AirTag, potentially identifying the culprit. But some of the people who spoke with The Times were unable to find the associated AirTags they were notified of and said the police do not always take reports of the notifications on their phones seriously.

After a Friday night out with her boyfriend this month, Erika Torres, a graduate music student in New Orleans, was notified by her iPhone that an “unknown accessory” had been detected near her over a two-hour period, moving with her from a bar to her home.

other devices could set off the alert, including AirPods. When Ms. Torres posted a video about her experience to YouTube, a dozen people commented about it happening to them. “The number of reports makes me think there must be some sort of glitch that is causing all these people to experience this,” Ms. Torres said. “I hope they’re not all being stalked.”

posted a video of her ordeal on TikTok, which went viral.

“Apple probably released this product with the intent to do good, but this shows that the technology can be used for good and bad purposes,” Ms. Estrada said.

Ms. Estrada said she was told by a Los Angeles police dispatcher that her situation was a nonemergency and that if she wanted to file a report she’d have to bring the device with her to the station in the morning. She didn’t want to wait and disposed of it after taking several photos.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles police told The Times that the department had not heard of cases in which an AirTag had been used to track a person or a vehicle. But Ms. Estrada said that after she posted her TikTok video, an Apple employee, acting on their own, contacted her. The employee was able to connect the AirTag to a woman whose address was in Central Los Angeles.

Another woman was notified by her iPhone that she was being tracked by an “unknown accessory” after leaving her gym in November. When she got home, she called the police.

pushed an update to AirTags to cause them to start beeping within a day of being away from their linked devices, down from three days. Still, “they don’t beep very loudly,” Ms. Galperin said.

A person who doesn’t own an iPhone might have a harder time detecting an unwanted AirTag. AirTags aren’t compatible with Android smartphones. Earlier this month, Apple released an Android app that can scan for AirTags — but you have to be vigilant enough to download it and proactively use it.

Apple declined to say if it was working with Google on technology that would allow Android phones to automatically detect its trackers.

People who said they have been tracked have called Apple’s safeguards insufficient. Ms. Estrada said she was notified four hours after her phone first noticed the rogue gadget. Others said it took days before they were made aware of an unknown AirTag. According to Apple, the timing of the alerts can vary depending on the iPhone’s operating system and location settings.

The devices’ inconsistencies have caused confusion for people who weren’t necessarily being tracked nefariously. Mary Ford, a 17-year-old high school student from Cary, N.C., received a notification in late October that she was being tracked by an unknown AirTag after driving to an appointment. She panicked as she searched her car.

Ms. Ford only realized it wasn’t a threat when her mother revealed she had put the tracker in the vehicle about two weeks earlier to follow her daughter’s whereabouts.

“I was nervous about Mary being out and not being able to find her,” said her mother, Wendy Ford. She said she hadn’t intended to keep the knowledge of the AirTag from her daughter, “but if I knew she would have been notified, I probably would have told her.”

Jahna Maramba rented a vehicle from the car-sharing service Turo last month in Los Angeles, then received a notification about an unknown AirTag near her on a Saturday night with her girlfriends.

She took the vehicle to her friend’s parking garage where she searched the outside of the car for an hour before its owner notified her that he had placed the device inside the vehicle. Ms. Maramba had been driving the car for two days.

A spokesperson for Turo said in a statement that the company has no control over the technology car owners use on the vehicles they rent out.

“Imagine finding out via a notification that you’re being tracked,” Ms. Maramba said. “And you can’t do anything about it.”

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5 Tips to Take Command of Your iPhone

Last month, Apple released an update to its operating system, iOS 14.5, which gives users more control of their personal data. But if you’re looking to gain more control over the iPhone itself, you also have options. Want to put your favorite apps within easy reach, tag friends in Messages or set your preferred browser to open links? You can do all that and more.

Here are a few quick tips for enhancing the iPhone experience. Next week’s Tech Tip column will round up a few helpful hints for the Android faithful.

The Control Center — that handy panel of often-used settings summoned with a finger swipe — first appeared back in 2013 and got more useful when Apple began to let users add their preferred buttons a few years later. If you haven’t tinkered with your Control Center to add the features and functions you use the most, just open the Settings icon on the home screen, scroll down to Control Center and give it a tap.

Credit…Apple

From the list on the next screen, choose the icons for the apps and settings you want to live in your Control Center. While tools like the Flashlight are typically there by default, you can remove those you never use and add icons for apps you want, like the Magnifier, the QR Code scanner or even the Shazam music recognition feature. To rearrange the order of the icons on the screen, drag them up and down the list before you close the Settings app.

Back Tap feature to have your iPhone perform a specific action when you give it quick taps on the back.

Credit…Apple

To set it up, open the Settings, select Accessibility and then Touch, and scroll down to Back Tap. Once you select Back Tap, select either Double or Triple Tap and choose an action on the next screen, like opening the Spotlight search app or the Control Center or running a Shortcut you’ve set up with Apple’s Shortcuts app. You can assign two separate tasks to the Double Tap and Triple Tap functions — and Back Tap should work even if your iPhone is in a case.

Tired of the iPhone always opening the Safari browser instead of your favored DuckDuckGo when you tap a link, or firing up Apple’s Mail program instead of the Gmail app when you select an email address from your Contacts list? If your iPhone is running iOS 14 or later, you can choose the apps you want as your default programs.

Messages chat or get someone’s attention in a group conversation, just as you can on some social media platforms? You can do both.

Credit…Apple

To reply to a certain message in either a one-on-one or group chat where everyone is using the Messages app, press your finger on that message until a menu appears. Select Reply, enter your response and tap the blue Send arrow. To tag someone in a conversation so he or she gets a notification, put the @ symbol in front of the name or just type the name and select it when it pops up onscreen from your Contacts.

Apple’s Siri voice assistant, celebrating a decade on the iPhone this October, has been losing ground in knowledge and usefulness to Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant in recent years. To boost Siri’s powers, Apple added more skills in iOS 14. And with iOS 14.5, it now includes a more diverse set of voices.

Credit…Apple

To change how and when Siri sounds, open the Settings icon on the home screen, select Siri & Search and make your selections. You can also opt to display your conversations on the screen by tapping Siri Responses and turning on “Always Show Siri Captions” and “Always Show Speech” to make sure you see the last word, too.

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