The rise in AirTag tracking... and how women are being secretly stalked

·9-min read
Photo credit: Sarah Coleman - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sarah Coleman - Getty Images

Khadijah had only been dating the man for a few weeks. The 30-year-old beautician from North Carolina, USA, had not noticed anything unusual about the situation until her daughter, 10, mentioned that recently, whenever she got into her mum’s car, she would receive an unusual notification on her iPhone. She had ignored the pop-up alert a few times but finally decided to say something.

The smartphone notified her that there was an Apple AirTag nearby - a coin-sized wireless Bluetooth product that can be attached to items like keys, wallets, or a bag, for a person to track their personal possessions if they get lost. The hardware triangulates its position so it can provide a map of its location, and send remote updates as it moves around. The AirTag was not something that either Khadijah or her daughter owned. They began searching.

And there, on the back seat of Khadijah’s car, in a small black magnetic pouch that perfectly concealed it against the vehicle’s black upholstery, they found a single AirTag. “It blended right [in],” she says. “I felt stalked, upset and in danger.” Khadijah believes it had been intentionally left there the week previously by the man she had been dating.

Apple launched the £29 AirTag in April 2021. The exact number sold is not available but Tile, a similar product launched in 2012, has sold over 40 million units. In the 12 months since Apple’s launch, there have been numerous reports of AirTags being abused to track women.

Sports Illustrated model Brooks Nader, 26, posted an Instagram Story telling her 827k followers that she had one slipped into her coat pocket at a New York restaurant. In Las Vegas, a 25-year-old man was arrested accused of stalking someone with the device. A Vice report in April found 150 police reports, from eight US police departments, mentioning AirTags. In a third of cases women called the police because they, like Khadijah, had a notification about a tag they didn’t own.

Photo credit: Sarah Coleman - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sarah Coleman - Getty Images

On 10 February, Apple acknowledged the problem in a statement. The brand said it “condemned in the strongest possible terms any malicious use” and explained it did consider unwanted tracking when designing the product - including the development of the first-ever proactive alert system, which is the feature that notified Khadijah’s daughter and allows victims to sound an alarm on the stray AirTag to try and find it. Most reports of malpractice have so far originated in the USA, but now stalking charities in the UK say it is happening here too.

“We have seen a rise in the use of Apple AirTags as a tracking device over the past few months, which is of huge concern,” says Violet Alvarez from the anti-stalking charity, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. “We expect the numbers to continue to rise.” The charity knows of a number of ongoing cases in Britain. Some TikTok users in Sussex have shared videos explaining that they were AirTagged on nights out too.

While the AirTag problem on this side of the Atlantic might still seem in its infancy, tech-facilitated harassment, and technology being weaponised against women, is actually long-established. AirTags are simply the most recent item in the stalking toolkit.

In the year 2020-2021, there were 80,000 stalking incidents recorded in England and Wales. This is a significant increase compared to pre-pandemic. Scotland Yard has reported stalking offences in London soaring by 400 per cent in just two years. In February, British tennis star Emma Raducanu spoke about a stalker walking 23 miles to her home and stealing her father’s shoe as a souvenir; while Gracie’s Law, a petition to increase funding for protecting stalking victims reached over 100,000 signatures before being debated in parliament (the petition is now closed and an adjacent consultation on improving victim experiences of the criminal justice system continues to be explored).

Despite these increasing numbers and high profile reports putting the issue into the spotlight, concerns remain that stalking is not being taken seriously enough, that it's still somewhat trivialised. Katy Bourne, National Stalking Lead for the Association of Police & Crime Commissioners, has taken to social media for two years running to call out card companies who sell stalking-themed Valentine’s cards. Popular culture and TV shows like Netflix’s You position stalking as mainstream entertainment. The language of stalking is still used casually to mean everything from looking up ex-partners on social media to following where friends are running on apps like Strava.

The issue existed long before AirTags came onto the market – but as it becomes clearer that technology is being used in this way, what is being done to stop it?

It was four months before Elizabeth*, 31, from Bristol, UK, realised her partner had been keeping tabs on her whereabouts via a covert app. He had figured out how to secretly unlock her phone when she was sleeping and installed the free software that tracked Elizabeth when she was out of the house. She only discovered its existence when she was having a phone clear-out to free up storage space. “It all clicked into place,” she says. “He would always know where I was - if I went to see family or friends or spur of the moment decided to go shopping. I’d always just chalked it up to ‘oh maybe I posted on Facebook or a friend said something’,” she says.

Elizabeth says this digital tracking was part of a wider pattern of controlling behaviour in the relationship. In 2019, after they split up he threatened to visit her family and friends, whose addresses he had obtained during his digital stalking. “It was very scary all round, for a long time after that I couldn’t really trust anyone, I would not leave my phone anywhere,” she says. She also recalls how her partner had been adamant they should get a smart home system installed with cameras and a video bell - but they broke up before this could happen.

Known collectively as the Internet of Things (IoT) - a term coined by consumer expert Kevin Ashton in 1999 during his work at Procter & Gamble, to mean items that are connected to the internet and objects that talk to each other - devices such as smart kettles, smart TVs, speakers, smartwatches, or camera doorbells, are increasingly able to be manipulated for abusive purposes. Emma Pickering, tech abuse lead at charity Refuge, says there has been a 97 per cent increase in complex tech abuse cases being referred to her team between April 2020 and May 2021. And every single case reported to the National Stalking Helpline now has a cyber element, says the Suzy Lamplugh Trust which runs the support phone line.

As well as the Internet of Things, tech abuse can include hacking victim’s devices, installing spyware, and the use of drones. Sophie Francis-Cansfield from Women’s Aid says that the common denominator in all these instances is “control is at the heart [of all of this] and perpetrators can take advantage of technology, such as location apps and message tracking, to closely monitor their partner, restrict their independence, and instil fear”.

The harms caused by tech are not lesser than in-person and are in most cases an extension of abusive behaviours offline - allowing the reach of the perpetrator to go further. Dr Leonie Tanczer, from University College London, who has studied the impact of tech abuse says: “The harm that is caused by tech abuse is real. It is really unhelpful to think of our analogue world as the ‘real world’ and our experiences online as something artificial and remote. [Victims] feel entrapped - both in their physical space as well as online.” These instruments are used for gaslighting, which makes survivors “question their experiences and reality”.

As well as being used in the context of abusive relationships, technology - like AirTags - can be used for more spontaneous stalking by strangers. Last summer, Madilynn, 28, from Kansas City in Missouri, was feeling overwhelmed with work. She decided that instead of pushing on, she would give herself a break - a quick nap in her car - before continuing her day. Madilynn says she “felt safe enough” to pull up in a public car park for the short rest. She drifted to sleep but was quickly disturbed by a man loitering near her car.

“When I got out and questioned [him] he got flustered and ran off,” she says. Around 12 hours later she got a notification on her iPhone saying she was being tracked. She found an AirTag wedged behind her front registration plate. “I think it scared me the most because I saw him, and now at night when I walk to my car alone I look for him,” says Madilynn.

Photo credit: Sarah Coleman - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sarah Coleman - Getty Images

Other women have shared stories with Cosmopolitan of having AirTags added into their bags while they are at the gym or in nightclubs. Effy, 25, was visiting Orlando in Florida with friends, going on nights out, getting drunk, and generally enjoying herself. But at one nightclub she was AirTagged. She says when she realised what was happening her “heart just stopped” - she wasn’t able to track down the perpetrator but worried it could lead to further stalking.

This uptick in tech-affiliated abuse has been fuelled by increased accessibility, says Clare McGlynn, a professor of law at Durham University and online abuse expert. Devices are smaller, cheaper and do not require intricate technological knowledge or skills to operate. “Before, an abuser had to be relatively tech-savvy and determined but now [it is] relatively simple,” says McGlynn. “This means crossing the line into stalking and intrusive behaviours becomes easier. There are fewer moments for someone to stop and think, no this isn't right.”

Looking to the future, Dr Tanczer says there will be no “one single solution” or “silver bullet” to fix this but we must understand it as a “societal problem [that] requires societal responses” such as education and considering how victims receive help and report abuse.

Since finding the AirTag in March, Khadijah says she now has frequent nightmares about it. She also thinks it “could have been worse” if she and her daughter had not located it when they did. She did not report to the police what had happened. An Apple spokesperson said the company is actively working with law enforcement on all AirTag-related requests, that instances of misuse are rare, and it will be making further improvements by the end of 2022.

But even if AirTags could no longer be used for malicious purposes, even if the products were all removed from shops, they are just the tip of a phenomenal iceberg. A symptom of a societal issue that must be rooted out, not the cause of the problem. And as we live more of our lives online than ever before, tech abuse is a problem we cannot afford to ignore.

*Name has been changed at the request of the survivor

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