Apple’s AirTag Brings New Challenges for Family Law Practitioners and Their Clients

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP.

Tracking devices are nothing new for family law practitioners, but Apple®’s newest gadget, the AirTag, may pose a particularly significant concern.  The AirTag, which is a new implementation of location tracking, brings with it the potential to make tracking without consent easier due to its simplicity, convenience, and anti-stalking design decisions.

The AirTag provides Apple users an easy way to keep track of lost items such as keys, backpacks and wallets.  They are inexpensive and readily available.  In order to provide location information, AirTags leverage the billions of iPhones and other Apple devices in the world.  Whenever an AirTag is near one of those devices, its location can be reported to Apple and, ultimately, to the owner of the AirTag.

While there are clear benefits to using such a device to track lost or stolen objects, AirTags can be subject to misuse.  Apple has implemented some protections, but these protections can be circumvented.

If an AirTag is used to track your location without your knowledge, you may be alerted in one of two ways:

  1. If you are an iPhone user, you will be alerted with a notification on your iPhone when you return home or when you visit what Apple deems as a significant location (such as your workplace or your weekly grocery store). This alert can be disabled by someone with physical access to your phone.
  2. If you are not an iPhone user, have significant locations disabled, or do not have a home address set in your iPhone, you will receive an audible alert from the AirTag itself, but only after the AirTag has been out of contact with its owner’s iPhone for three consecutive days.

This alert system has several weaknesses:

  • If you are an iPhone user, you will likely not receive an alert until you arrive home—a problem if the malicious AirTag user does not already know where you live.
  • If you are not an iPhone user, your protection against this type of misuse of AirTags is severely limited—an alert will not appear on an Android phone.
  • A domestic partner or someone else living with you could use an AirTag to track you, and you would not be alerted. They may have access to your phone to disable the alert, and if you cohabitate, you likely will not be alerted when you return home since this is also where the AirTag owner’s iPhone is located.
  • The small speaker in an AirTag can be easily disabled using instructions found online. The sound of an AirTag may also be muffled by something like clothing in a suitcase.

AirTag batteries are advertised to last up to one year, and an AirTag itself is only slightly larger than two-dollar coins stacked together.  Stalkers and others who would seek to abuse tracking technology no longer require a bulky and expensive GPS tracking device with limited battery life – they only need an AirTag hidden away in your clothing, purse, luggage, or vehicle.

Each AirTag does have a unique serial number, so if an unknown AirTag is found, you may be able to receive the assistance of law enforcement to obtain AirTag ownership information.  However, that information will take time to obtain.

If you or your client find an unknown AirTag, you can scan it by holding it close to your iPhone or another near-field communication (NFC) equipped phone (such as all recent Android phones) to reveal the serial number of the AirTag and a partial phone number of the registered user.  If the AirTag has been placed in lost mode, you may also see a message from the owner.  However, scanning an unknown AirTag can also be dangerous as it is possible to modify AirTags to redirect the phone scanning it to a malicious website.

To scan for the presence of a nearby AirTag you have not found, use a Bluetooth LE scanner tool.  Apps for this are available for Android phones, iPads and iPhones.  You will need to move to a location far away (100 meters) from other potential sources of Bluetooth transmissions before using such a tool, and these tools do not pinpoint the location of an AirTag—you will only know that a Bluetooth device of unknown origin is near you.

As you advise your clients about how to ensure their ex-spouse or soon-to-be ex-spouse isn’t tracking them, share this information.  DHG’s digital forensics professionals are available to assist you with questions about AirTags.

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