Apple’s Android app to search for AirTags is a necessary step forward, but more anti-harassment mitigations are needed

This post has been updated to indicate that Tracker Detect is available internationally.

We’re glad to see that Apple has released an Android app called Tracker Detect that addresses some of the serious privacy and security threats we identified with Apple AirTags when they debuted. Quarter-sized Bluetooth guide tags marketed as a way to track lost luggage or keys, AirTags can easily be exploited by stalkers to track and locate their victims.

As we explained in May, AirTags can be slipped into a target’s bag or car, allowing attackers to track their every move. Although there are other physical trackers such as Tile and Chipolo on the market, AirTags are an order of magnitude more dangerous because Apple has ensured that each iPhone does not specifically opt out of a part of the network of Bluetooth tracking that AirTags use to communicate, which means that the range of AirTags is much greater than that of other trackers. Almost all of us come across Bluetooth-enabled iPhones several times a day, even if we don’t know it.

We enlisted Apple to create an Android app that alerts users to a nearby tracker. Tracker Detect, released on the Google Play Store this week, lets Android device users know if someone is tracking them with an AirTag or other devices with sensors that support the Apple Find My network. If the app detects an unexpected AirTag nearby, it will appear in the app as “Unknown AirTag”. The app has a sort of “alarm”: it will beep within 10 minutes of identifying the tracker, a big improvement over the time it takes for an AirTag to start beeping when it is out of range of the iPhone to which it is connected: 24 hours, plenty of time for a stalker to track down a victim without their knowledge.

Although not perfect, Tracker Detect is a privacy win. This gives victims of domestic and intimate violence that exist outside of the Apple ecosystem a chance to know if they are being followed or followed. EFF supports a harm reduction approach to privacy, and this app fills an important gap. It will be important to educate domestic violence shelters and other service providers to familiarize them with AirTags and how to use Tracker Detect to run a scan. The app is available in the United States and around the world. But it’s only available for Android 9 and above, which rules out many devices at the cheap end of the Android ecosystem that are often used by vulnerable populations.

In September, researchers from Darmstad Technical University’s Secure Mobile Networking Lab released an app called Air Guard, which is available on the Google Play Store. The app claims to be able to detect AirTags on an Android device when running in the background, but EFF has yet to test the functionality of Air Guard. This can be an additional option for Android users who are concerned about physical trackers.

Having an app to download is a step forward, but it’s not enough. We call on Google to go further and integrate background AirTag tracking and detection of other physical trackers into the Android operating system. Unlike the feature that Apple built into the iPhone, which runs constantly in the background, Tracker Detect requires the user to run a scan. Having your device automatically detect trackers will put it on par with the harassment mitigations iPhone users already have. This mitigation can only be accomplished if Apple and Google work together to protect users from physical trackers.

We hope Apple and Google take the threat of ubiquitous, cheap, and powerful physical trackers seriously enough to work together to help their users know when they’re being tracked.

About Sandra A. Powell

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