Following Apple’s announcement of new AirTag and Find My changes to address harassment issues, a new story from The New York Times offers a deep dive into this situation. The report explores the use of AirTag, Tile, and a standard GPS tracker for nefarious purposes – and it really shows how much more advanced Apple’s prevention features are.
New York Times Reporter Kashmir Hill set out to compare AirTag, Tile, and a GS tracker by planting them on her husband (with his consent, of course). Hill planted three AirTags, three Tiles and a GPS tracker on her husband and his belongings “to see how accurately they revealed his movements and which ones he discovered.”
The experiment was put to the test quickly when Hill’s husband had to take the couple’s daughter to the hospital after she tested positive for COVID-19.
Thirty minutes after my husband and youngest left for the hospital, I opened an app linked to the most accurate tracker in my arsenal, the $30 LandAirSea device. It costs extra to activate, as it needs a cellular plan to relay where global positioning satellites have placed it. I chose the cheapest plan, $19.95 per month, to get location updates every three minutes; the most expensive plan, for updates every three seconds, was $49.95.
The app has an “InstaFence” feature that can alert me when the car is moving, and a “Playback” option to show where the car has been, so I can see the exact route on windy roads which my husband had taken. I saw he parked at 4:55pm so wasn’t surprised when I got a text from him 12 minutes later that they were in the waiting area.
While this Amazon GPS tracker was able to show real-time location status, the Tile and AirTag “didn’t work as well in real-time in the sparsely populated area we live in.” This is because Tile and AirTag rely on their respective networks of devices for location data, rather than dedicated GPS and cellular connections.
Meanwhile, the AirTag privacy feature worked as expected, to some extent:
Less than two hours after installing all the trackers in our car, my husband, who has an iPhone, received an AirTag alert after running an errand.
The problem was that he couldn’t find it. The alert said he could make the AirTag hear a sound, but when he tried to do so, his phone wouldn’t connect to the device. This happened several times and he started to get frustrated. “Is it in my shoe? he asked me at one point, taking off his blue Nike and looking at her. “You have to tell me. I don’t want to destroy my shoe looking for it.
The one time his iPhone connected to the AirTag in the car, so he could play the noise, it was so hard to tell where it was coming from that he gave up looking for it after five minutes.
Tile, on the other hand, presented no such warning:
The Tile tracker wasn’t as knowledgeable. Its system is similar to Apple’s, but far fewer people have the Tile app on their phones than their own Apple devices. Forty million tiles have been sold, the company said last year.
Another key difference between Tile and AirTag is that if an iPhone detects an unknown AirTag continuously moving with it, the iPhone owner receives a notification, along with a map indicating where tracking began. (Android owners, meanwhile, must download a special app to scan for AirTags. Tile said it plans to release a similar app for people worried about unwanted tracking.)
Tile spokesman Scott Coriell said in a statement that Tile is “designed to help people find their stuff, not track people.” He added that using a Tile for other purposes “may result in a permanent ban from Tile.”
The complete piece of New York Times worth reading and can be found here. The key seems to be that a standard GPS tracker is clearly more nefarious than an AirTag or a Tile, and Apple’s security precautions are indeed miles ahead of both.
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