In April 2021, Apple released a new gadget: the AirTag. Super small and super easy-to-use, it was the ultimate solution to the never-ending problem of losing your belongings. The forgetful Neville Longbottoms of the world were in luck. Panicked searches through stinky ‘Lost & Found’ boxes were set to be a thing of the past. As Apple’s marketing campaign promised, people could finally ‘lose [their] knack for losing things.’
Inevitably, the new release was accompanied by a swarm of gadget enthusiasts, mostly middle-aged men, flocking to Facebook and Twitter to praise their handy new purchase. To these happy customers, AirTags were great. As long as you had an iPhone 11 or higher, you could attach the product to your wallet, keys, backpack, or even pet. Using the ‘Find Me’ app and your childhood Red-Light-Green-Light Hide and Seek skills, you could then easily reunite yourself with your belongings whenever they were misplaced.
Ideal, right? Well, like most seemingly magical technologies, AirTags had dangerous potential when placed in the wrong hands. As Apple should have realized, the line between item-finding and human-finding is all too fragile. A tool used to find misplaced possessions can easily be misused for stalking.
In the last two months alone, St. Andrews has been the site of multiple instances of such misuse.
On the 25th of January, first-year student Sophie McGowan received a Find My notification that she was carrying an unknown accessory. She was in her flat, having just returned from a trip to Market Street. At no time had her bag, or anything else on her person, been left unattended. The notification told her that the accessory had ‘been moving with [her] for a while’. Upon tapping on it, Sophie saw a sequence of red dots, mapping out her route home from Market Street. Concerned, she rang the police and Apple, only for them to confirm what she’d already thought: the accessory was an AirTag, presumably attached to her by a stranger.
Since the incident, Sophie has become aware of similar cases in the local area. Although she has received no further notifications, the knowledge that St. Andrews, ‘one of the safest towns in the UK’, could be the location of such a violation still upsets her. Asked to comment on the impact of her experience, she replied the following:
‘I’m from Glasgow and would never walk more than a few meters without having a glance over my shoulder. Since moving to St Andrews, I had dropped this habit as I just felt so safe. […] The relative smallness of this town I feel gives people an illusion of safety, which I have now learned doesn’t exist.’
It’s troubling to learn of yet another reason to feel unsafe around town, just two months after St Andrews Feminist Society’s spiking-related ‘Big Night In’. As the University’s Campus Safety Society commented, AirTagging incidents ‘are never the victim’s fault and it is appalling that this technology is being used in such a way that violates an individual’s safety.’
Informing ourselves and those around us can, however, help to deter this form of illegal stalking. If you find yourself in a situation where think you have been AirTagged, Campus Safety advises disabling tracking, via. your phone’s location services (in Settings) or the AirTag directly (by ‘twisting counter-clockwise on the back, by the Apple logo, and then taking the battery out’). Reading IT support-worker Bethany McNally’s blog post is also a great way of learning what AirTags look like and how to detect and disable them, in advance.
Of course, the thought of an unknown person tracking one’s whereabouts, and with such ease, is alarming. But, by using and sharing relevant resources, we can all help to keep ourselves and others safe from AirTag misuse.