To fight AirTag stalking, Apple and Google finally team up

Apple and Google are teaming up to fight a stalking problem the tech industry created: people using AirTags and other Bluetooth devices to track people without their consent.

The tiny gadgets, which are sold as a digital way to find lost keys and other items, have been used by creeps and abusers to spy on people by hiding them in bags, cars and other personal belongings.

Now in a rare moment of cooperation, Apple and Google said they have developed a specification that will help alert people to the fact they’re traveling with one of these devices, regardless of whether they use an iPhone or Android phone. It could also work with a range of different tracking devices; Apple, Samsung, Tile, Chipolo, eufy Security, and Pebblebee have all expressed support, according to the announcement.

The software isn’t yet available in Android and iOS, and the companies weren’t specific about when it might be. They’re now seeking feedback on a draft of their specification through the Internet Engineering Task Force, which they hope to finalize by the end of 2023.

Last year, I tested early software made by Apple, Tile and Samsung to alert people they were being tracked, and found a patchwork of apps that worked better for engineers than for domestic abuse survivors. Much of it was brand or operating-system specific, and put the onus on a phone owner to have technical knowledge to scan for trackers that might be hidden in their belongings.

Am I being tracked? Anti-stalking tech from Apple, Tile falls short.

The tech industry, I wrote, needed to build the capability to sense for Bluetooth trackers right into smartphone operating systems. It should just pop up an alert when you need it, no knowledge required.

The specification “is a big step forward in trying to find a real industry solution that is very survivor-centered,” said Erica Olsen, the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s senior director of its Safety Net Project. Her organization consulted with the tech giants on the plans.

“There could have been attempts to keep doing things on a piecemeal basis, which would really place the burden of detecting trackers on survivors. It is such an overwhelmingly difficult process that that’s truly an unfair burden,” she said.

The last time the Big Tech companies worked together on this sort of tech was for alerts about covid-19 exposure.

While the draft specification hammers out some back end details, other challenges remain to make tracking alerts for phones easy to use and understand. “Now the question is what do the notifications say — and do they scare survivors or inform them?” Olsen said. “We don’t want people to be terrified, or give them a false sense of security.”

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