Mobile phone and lock icons in the dark showing bluetooth tracking

Apple and Google Working Together on Industry Standard to Warn Device Users of Unauthorized Bluetooth Tracking

Apple AirTags have now been available for a little over two years, and during that time there have been numerous cases of stalkers and criminals abusing them to follow a victim. Apple’s latest move to combat this phenomenon, made with the partnership of Google, is the publication of a suggested industry standard for warning device users of unauthorized Bluetooth tracking.

The system would require device manufacturers to buy in, providing alerts automatically generated in iOS or Android when a potential Bluetooth tracking device is detected in the area. A number of companies, Samsung and major tracker manufacturer Tile among them, have expressed interest in signing on.

New system would generate warnings of attempted Bluetooth tracking

Google and Apple are partnering with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in this effort, a development organization that has been in action since the 1980s and was a central contributor to the creation of TCP/IP among other commonly used internet standards. The project is currently in a three-month comment period, at the end of which a product implementation will be released and eventually supported in both iOS and Android. At that point, it will be up to tracking device manufacturers to build it into their products.

Comparable Android devices have been available for a very long time, but the release of the AirTag in 2021 caused an immediate boom in interest in Bluetooth tracking of easily-misplaced objects that was paired with an unfortunate surge in the use of it for stalking and as an element of assorted criminal schemes. Women have reported finding AirTags planted on their cars or slipped into bags, and car thieves use them to mark and follow vehicles they are interested in, just to name two criminal use cases that have popped up numerous times.

The rash of illicit use of AirTags came about so quickly that Apple was already adding security features to address concerns in early 2022. The company added privacy warnings during device setup in a bid to scare off stalkers, noting that each tag has a unique serial number that can be tracked to the person using it. “Unknown Accessory” warnings that notify iPhone users when a device has been moving with them for some time were updated to be more precise, such as not providing a false alarm due to the presence of Airpods. The “precision finding” feature was also expanded to encompass unfamiliar AirTags in the immediate area, providing the user with the ability to see direction and distance and to cue the AirTag to make a sound.

Of course, all of this assumes you have an Apple device. Apple does make a tracker app available to Android users that contains some of this functionality, but not all of it. The proposed Bluetooth tracking standard would ensure a similar feature set is available to all mobile phone users, at least if a supported device is in the area.

Stalking, theft head up concerns about illicit Bluetooth tracking

Though there was a stalking and theft boom with the release of AirTags, domestic violence activists say that Bluetooth tracking devices have been a problem for at least a decade. An assortment of the biggest names in the market have already pledged to work with Apple and Google on these security standards: Tile, Chipolo, Eufy Security, Samsung, and Pebblebee.

If the new standard is ultimately adopted as planned, it would likely mean that purchasers of Bluetooth tracking tags would have to give up more personal information to use them. The current idea being floated is a pairing registry that obfuscates the tag purchaser’s identity, but allows contact information to be accessed in the event of a law enforcement investigation. Information would be held for at least 25 days after unpairing, and devices would have to log the last point at which the location was shared with the owner.

The standard would also have manufacturers implement two modes for all devices; a “near owner” mode for standard operation, and a special “separated” mode should it no longer be near one of the owner’s registered devices for at least 30 minutes. Android and iOS phones would get an alert when an unfamiliar “separated” Bluetooth tracking tag comes within range.

It could very well be years before this proposal becomes a true industry standard, but manufacturers may voluntarily adopt new security elements in the interim. Legal pressure could push this along, with Apple facing a class action suit initiated by two women that each had former partners plant AirTags to track their whereabouts. The suit accuses the Bluetooth tracking devices of being defective, and having insufficient safeguards in place in spite of claims by Apple executive during product launch that they were “stalker proof.”

 

Senior Correspondent at CPO Magazine