What Happens When You Use Bluetooth Tags to Track Your Stolen Items?

“The third time my 1999 Honda Civic was stolen, I had a plan,” writes Washington Post technology reporter Heather Kelly. Specifically, it was a tile tracker hidden in the car, “quietly transmitting its approximate location over Bluetooth.” Later that day, I was across town hiding down the block from my own car as police detained the surprised driver. When the Tile app pinged me with a last known location, I showed up expecting the car to be abandoned. I quickly realized it was still in use, with one person looking through the trunk and another napping in the passenger seat, so I called the police…

In April of this year, one month after my car was stolen, Apple released the $29 AirTag, bringing an even more effective Bluetooth tracking technology to a much wider audience. Similar products from Samsung and smaller brands such as Chipolo are testing the limits of how far people will go to get back their stolen property and what they consider justice. “The technology has unintended consequences. It basically gives the owner the ability to become a mini surveillance operation,” said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at the American University Washington College of Law…

Apple has been careful to never say AirTags can be used to recover stolen property. The marketing for the device is light and wholesome, focusing on situations like lost keys between sofa cushions. The official tagline is “Lose your knack for losing things” and there’s no mention of crime, theft or stealing in any of the ads, webpages or support documents. But in reality, the company has built a network that is ideal for that exact use case. Every compatible iPhone, iPad and Mac is being silently put to work as a location device without their owners knowing when it happens. An AirTag uses Bluetooth to send out a ping with its encrypted location to the closest Apple devices, which pass that information on to the Apple cloud. That spot is visible on a map in the Find My app. The AirTag owner can also turn on Lost Mode to get a notification the next time it’s detected, as well as leave contact information in case it’s found. Apple calls this the Find My network, and it also works for lost or stolen Apple devices and a handful of third-party products. The proliferation of compatible Apple devices — there are nearly a billion in the network around the world — makes Find My incredibly effective, especially in cities. (Apple device owners are part of the Find My network by default, but can opt out in settings, and the location information is all encrypted…)

All the tracker companies recommend contacting law enforcement first, which may sound logical until you find yourself waiting hours in a parking lot for officers to address a relatively low-priority crime, or having to explain to them what Bluetooth trackers are.

The Times shares stories of two people who tried using AirTags to track down their stolen property. One Seattle man tracked down his stolen electric bike — and ended up pedalling away furiously on the (now out of power) bicycle as the suspected thief chased after him.

And an Ohio man waited for hours in an unfamiliar drugstore parking lot for a response from the police, eventually travelling with them to the suspect’s house — where his stolen laptop was returned to the police officer by a man holding two babies in his arms.

Some parents have even hidden them in their childrens’ backpacks, and pet owners have hidden them in their pet’s collars, the Times reports — adding that the EFF’s director of cybersecurity sees another possibility. “The problem is it’s impossible to build a tool that is designed to track down stolen items without also building the perfect tool for stalking.”