Apple’s AirTag trackers are one of the most useful, yet controversial, products the company has introduced in a long time. They are perfect for gluing or gluing things you might lose, like your keys, for example. I have several, and they are great. I don’t tend to lose things, but there have been a few times where they have given me extra peace of mind knowing my backpack isn’t going to accidentally go missing.
The problem is that, quite simply, AirTags work too well. Everything about them is perfect for something you want to track. They’re small, they’re very accurate, and they exist in an ecosystem of a billion iPhones capable of transmitting their location to you.
As a result, they are also ripe for abuse. A New York Times This week’s article demonstrated how easy it is to track someone using an AirTag. This may not seem like a problem if you’re talking about your son on a bike, but it quickly becomes problematic when you think about the harmful possibilities.
Last week, Apple announced a series of steps it takes to help locate an AirTag that may have been placed on you or your property by someone else. For example, you’ll now be able to use Precision Finding to exactly locate a nearby AirTag that doesn’t belong to you. Most interesting, however, is what he had to say to his own clients if they chose to use it for nefarious purposes:
Each AirTag has a unique serial number, and paired AirTags are associated with an Apple ID. Apple may provide linked account details in response to a subpoena or valid request from law enforcement. We have successfully partnered in cases where the information we provided was used to trace an AirTag back to the perpetrator, who was then apprehended and charged.
You might say it’s not particularly nice for a company to be so upfront with its customers, but that’s exactly Apple’s response: if you’re using our product to do something blatantly illegal, we don’t. We will not hesitate to provide your identity to law enforcement. The company clarifies that if you’re using AirTags to track or stalk someone, don’t expect Apple to offer you a safe haven.
Apple clearly feels a deep sense of responsibility for the technology it has built. Its Find My network is by far the most useful consumer-focused service for locating lost devices or other items. One of the main reasons it’s so effective is that it uses over a billion iPhones in active use as beacons to help locate lost items. Integration with your device’s operating system means it’s incredibly simple to use, too. This simplicity and integration also means it’s easy to abuse.
In that sense, it’s actually refreshing that Apple doesn’t just see itself as a platform-neutral developer. It understands that you are responsible for what you build, even if you have the best intentions and would never abuse it yourself. If others take the thing you built and use it to do harm, it might not be your fault, but it really is your problem.
In fact, Apple has made AirTags slightly less useful with these changes. If someone stole your property with an AirTag attached, they would be notified of its presence, making it more likely that they could remove it. This would obviously make it harder for you to find what they stole.
In that sense, AirTags have lost a feature that many users may have had in mind when buying one – the ability to find things that could be taken, like a bike, for example. It’s a trade-off the company was willing to make to protect those at risk of abuse.
It’s actually an interesting contrast to how many companies react to the reality of how people use their platforms. Time and time again, we see platform owners deflect responsibility for how people use what they’ve built. We’ve even seen companies like Facebook make calculated business decisions against changes when they might affect things like engagement, which affects business results.
Apple, on the other hand, seems to recognize that it is responsible for the things it builds and releases to the world. The truth is, we all are. If you’re building a product or creating a service, it’s almost impossible to imagine all the ways – good or bad – the product could be used. Once you know, however, you are no longer neutral. You are responsible.