Napier Lopez is a writer based in New York City. He's interested in all things tech, science, and photography related, and likes to yo-yo in Napier Lopez is a writer based in New York City. He's interested in all things tech, science, and photography related, and likes to yo-yo in his free time. Follow him on Twitter.
Apple’s object-tracking AirTags have been rife with controversy since their launch, particularly around the unfortunate fact that they make good tools for thieves and stalkers. It is therefore my sad duty to inform you that one of the security measures Apple has implemented for the AirTags is already being circumvented. Long story short: people are modifying AirTags to have the internal speaker — which can serve as a warning for those being stalked — disabled.
Long story long: for those of you who have never used AirTags before, what makes them so good at finding stuff is the fact that Apple leverages its entire ‘Find My’ network to keep track of an object. Almost every iOS and Mac device can ping Apple’s network when it comes within Bluetooth range of an AirTag.
Considering there are over 1.8 billion active Apple devices as of January 2022, it’s rare an AirTag will go long without sending its location to a nearby iPhone or MacBook in a densely populated area. That massive network makes AirTags particularly good at tracking stuff without having to rely on battery-draining GPS — doubly so if you have a recent iPhone with Ultra Wideband support for extra precision.
Unfortunately, precision and long battery life are also what make them such a cybersecurity concern. This isn’t just fear-mongering either; a simple Google search reveals myriad stories of AirTags being used for anything from stalking people to stealing cars.
Any item that works for the purpose of catching a thief in this manner is also a perfect tool for stalking. That is why Apple advertises them as tools for tracking lost items and not stolen ones.
— Eva (@evacide) February 2, 2022
In order to minimize improper use, AirTags are designed to beep annoyingly when the owner has been away from the object for 8 to 24 hours (the exact time is random). Apple will also send you an alert if it realizes someone else’s AirTag is following you, but that only works if you have an iPhone or the Apple’s Tracker Detect app for Android (or similar third-party apps) installed.
Naturally, disabling the speaker removes the most obvious way victims can find out if they’re being tracked.
As spotted by @publicdave on Twitter and later shared by Eva Galperin, Director of Cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a listing on Etsy was selling ‘silent’ AirTags. These devices had the built-in speaker physically disconnected so they are unable to make a sound.
The listing has since been removed by the seller, who told PCMag their intentions were innocent:
“The intent of this modification was to cater to the several requests of buyers interested in my other AirTag product who were interested in fitting an AirTag to their bikes, pets, and power tools.”
The idea appears to have been making AirTags better for tracking stolen items. Although Apple doesn’t intend for AirTags for this purpose — they’re purely meant to track lost items — it’s not surprising many have used them to retrieve items from thieves. So if you just want to keep an AirTag on your bike, it’s understandably annoying to have it beep when you leave its vicinity.
It’s worth noting the seller also lists other AirTags-related products; their most popular item is a modified slim AirTag made to easily fit inside a purse or wallet.
“The AirTag is very easy to make ‘silent,’ either by electrical modification or simply muffling the noise with a clamping force. I can’t stop people from modifying AirTags themselves (there are various posts online instructing how to do so), but I can at least cease providing a tool that has the potential for malicious use.
While I believe there to be many positive uses for this product, there are some negatives, that I’m now aware of, that can’t be outweighed by any positive. In light of this, I have removed my listing from Etsy. I’m not affiliated with any other listings of silent AirTags.”
Indeed, a similar listing shows up on eBay, and there is no shortage of guides online on how to modify AirTags to be silent. It’s an unfortunately easy modification, with no clear solution. Apple could theoretically prevent AirTags from working if the speaker is disconnected, but that wouldn’t prevent people from simply muffling the speaker sound.
Don’t get me wrong, as a perpetual loser-of-stuff, I appreciate the convenience afforded by Apple’s AirTags. But as with any technology that can be used for harm, it’s important to be informed so you can remain safe; it’s unlikely Apple will stop selling AirTags any time soon. Android users, in particular, should make sure to download the Tracker Detect app if they think there’s any possibility they could be tracked by a bad actor with Apple’s controversial gadget.
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