Apple Airtags: good or bad?

Airtags

Apple launched its newest gadget: AirTags. It’s a tiny tag that you can put in a bag, or put on your keyring and your iPhone can find it. Isn’t that awesome? Well…

How does it work?

If I had to design a system for finding a tag anywhere, I’d start with GPS and a radio transmitter. Global Position System would allow a device to determine it’s own position using satellites. You know, like navigation systems in cars. Then the radio transmitter could be used to send the position.

That idea, however, has two drawbacks. First, you have to somehow tell the device when to start sending its location when you want to find it. Second, you need to somehow power both the radio transmitter and the GPS system. The combination of those two things makes it a very problematic approach. Sending a radio signal requires quite some power. GPS as well. Using the cellular network would help, but power would still be a problem.

In practice, such a system will use a periodic ‘phone home’ call. When that phone home reports the device is ‘missing’, the device will start to broadcast its GPS location. That will last until the battery runs out. I’ve made some tiny contributions to such a system for retrieving stolen bicycles, and there the battery would last only a day or so in the broadcast state.

Apple uses a completely different approach for its AirTags, though, based on Bluetooth. Instead of GPS and radio, they use a different infrastructure: iPhones. That’s right, AirTags leverage other people’s iPhones to locate the Airtags. When you get close enough you can use your own iPhone to point at the tag.

AirTags: useful?

If you have a habit of misplacing your car keys, or your wallet, this could be pretty useful. Walking around your home with your iPhone following an arrow beats running around in panic, looking in every nook and cranny.

You could also hook an Airtag to a collar and use it to locate your pet. Don’t know if I’d do that with my cats; they tend to lose their collars. On dogs, however, this could work. Although, I’d want my dog trained well enough not to run away in the first place.

I could also imagine putting it in the pocket of your child’s coat when you’re at a festival or in a crowd, or visiting an amusement park. That could really save you a few grey hairs. Just think of all those times you’ve heard a public announcement for parents to come pick up their lost kid.

That abuse of power, though

Apple uses the walled garden model for their stuff. That has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that Apple can quality-control everything, keep it consistent, and keep it mostly compatible. That also allows them to provide (security) updates for years – the thing that made me switch over from an Android phone to an iPhone.

On the other hand, because Apple controls everything, they can charge what they like. And the sunken cost fallacy dictates that if you already own an iPhone, you might as well pour more money down the hole and get iCloud and other Apple devices.

AirTags are no exception. Competitors are allowed to hook into the ‘find my’ network. They are not allowed to go near the chips in the iPhone that handle the ultra-wide bandwidth networking, though. That means competitors such as Tile, offering similar finding software, cannot create an app that competes with the ‘find my’ network. The same thing happened with other technologies, such as Apple Pay. Competing solutions are shut out. Competitors increasingly appeal to courts and governments to stop Apple from abusing its power. And given Apple has a revenue that’s bigger than the GDP of most countries… well, they have a point.

On the other hand, so does Apple. They have less fragmentation, better integrated apps, and less crapware than Android.

AirTags: the dark side

There’s also the dark side of this tech. Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of very nasty applications.

First, of course, is the extension of tracking your kid at an amusement park. Tracking your kid everywhere. Or worse, using it to stalk your ex, or a random person. Apple has taken some mitigating measures, but still. If you own an iPhone, you can get a warning that you are being tracked. Of course, that doesn’t work for people without iPhones, like children, or Android users. The tag also starts to beep after a few days away from its owner, but that might be a few days too late. I can imagine a sexual predator slipping a tag into a child’s pocket, then follow them around until they can catch them alone. It’s probably not a common risk, but stalking and child molestation are not things to easily dismiss.

Then there’s a more subtle problem. What if you can create an app (maybe even on another device) to find any AirTags in range. That would allow criminals to roam a parking lot, and pick out the cars where people left important enough things to put an expensive tag on them. And houses with AirTags inside are a pretty good bet for MacBooks and iPads. So burgle away!

And what will questionably regimes do? Will they strongarm Apple for access? Well… remember that time the US government sued them over encrypted iPhones? Yeah, I’ve ranted about the privacy implications of the Internet of Things before, and I stick by what I wrote then.

Conclusion

Apple Airtags are a bit of a mixed tag — sorry, bad pun. They could be useful, but they also potentially allow criminal behavior. And the things are not cheap.

So yeah, don’t know if I will ever get one — also because I don’t lose my keys very often. My kid, though…

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

One Comment

  1. Edited because I mistakinly said the ‘Find my’ network was blocked to competitors. It is not, it’s just the ultra-wide bandwidth transmission chips which are. Thanks Jules, for pointing that out.

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