AirTags are handy when used properly. But when someone uses them to track a person without their knowledge or consent, it’s a problem. And that’s why Apple now faces a class action lawsuit.
Lost your keys? Wallet? Laptop? Are you one of those people who would “lose their head if it wasn’t fastened on”?
If so, you might be the owner of an Apple AirTag (or two... or three). But these lawsuits against Apple, the maker of AirTags, might give you pause—or at least some reasons to be aware of what they are and how they work.
How do AirTags and other personal tracking devices work?
When you register an AirTag, it sends a secure Bluetooth signal that is detected by nearby devices in the network. The other devices transmit anonymous, encrypted information to iCloud, which alerts you to the location of your AirTag.
In other words, if you leave your wallet with an AirTag behind in the supermarket, another shopper’s iPhone picks up the location of the AirTag. You can then look up the device in your Find My app and see your wallet on a map.
The device is a small, round tag that’s about the size of a quarter. It’s designed that way so it’s easily slipped into your wallet, attached to keys, even placed on your dog’s collar—and it is so inconspicuous that you don’t need to think about it unless you need to track your item.
Dangers associated with AirTags
AirTags are a great little convenience if you’re prone to losing important things.
But because they are so inconspicuous, they can also be used in unintended ways.
In both cases, the women had a former partner who tracked their movements by secretly planting AirTags in their belongings. One woman, Lauren Hughes, was in the process of moving to a new apartment when she received a notification that an unknown AirTag was traveling with her. She ultimately located the AirTag, which had been placed in the wheel well of her car.
How to know an AirTag is tracking you
If you have an iPhone, it will notify you if a tracker is near you and away from its owner for 24 hours. If you have an Android phone, an app called Tracker Detect would scan your surroundings for AirTags and notify you if one is nearby. Tracker Detect is an Apple app that’s available on the Google Play Store for Android devices.
Tracker Detect does not automatically notify you if you’re being tracked; you must actively scan for AirTags anytime you suspect you might be in range.
If you find an AirTag that does not belong to you, you can remove the battery to disable the device. You should also contact the police.
If you detect an AirTag, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re being stalked or tracked. Depending on where you are or where it’s located, someone might have lost an item with an AirTag that happens to be nearby. For instance, if you’re in a public place like a library or store, you could be notified that an AirTag is nearby because another patron lost an item more than 24 hours prior to your being there.
Experts recommend that if your phone or app detects an AirTag, you should try to find it immediately. The iPhone’s Find My app will help locate it. Don’t go home if you’re not sure where the AirTag is or who owns it.
The other woman, who chooses to keep her name confidential, found an AirTag in her child’s backpack during a contentious divorce.
Lawsuits against Apple for AirTag tracking
These women sued Apple, claiming that the company’s safeguards against stalking were “woefully inadequate”. One reason is that if the victim owns an Android phone rather than an iPhone, notifications are not automatic if an AirTag is in your location; you must download an after-market app for that purpose.
The class action lawsuit seeks damages for individuals who’ve been tracked with AirTags or who are at risk for danger from AirTag tracking.
Even though there is no native Android app that protects against stalking by AirTag users, Apple says that if an Air Tag is out of range of the owner’s paired device for three days, it will automatically emit a sound so a person nearby is aware of its presence.
Class action lawsuit against Apple
This lawsuit has been filed as a class action. A class action lawsuit can happen when many people (members of the “class”) have similar claims against the same defendant.
This particular class is broad. It could include:
- Any iOS device user who was stalked in the U.S.;
- An American citizen who owns an Android phone and was subject to stalking;
- Everyone in the U.S. with an iOS device who is at risk of being stalked; and
- Anyone with an Android phone who is at risk and lives in Apple’s home market.
As of April 2022, more than 150 reports were made of AirTags being used for stalking. The lawsuit demand is “actual damages or $50, whichever is greater... up to $1,000 punitive damages.” This inflates if more plaintiffs join the class.
Certainly, $1,000 per plaintiff — even if it turns out to be thousands of plaintiffs — is a drop in the bucket of deep-pocketed Apple Inc.
Is this a personal injury lawsuit?
This could fall into the product liability category of personal injury law, which handles injuries caused by a defective item.
There are three ways an item can be defective under product liability law:
- Defective design, which means the way the creator designed and built the product was inherently dangerous and could cause injury, even when used properly.
- Defective manufacturing, which happens when there are mistakes made in the production process; the item would be safe if it had been built according to its specifications but something went wrong and the product was manufactured incorrectly.
- Failure to warn, which is when the item needs to be used or cared for in a specific way, but the manufacturer failed to include adequate instructions or warnings for the end user. For instance, the safety warnings on electrical appliances are intended to prevent the user from suffering electrical shock or hazards. If the manufacturer doesn’t include these warnings or instructions for proper use, and someone is injured, it could be a defect by failure to warn.
Although the lawsuit is still pending, it would seem that arguments could be made either for defective design or failure to warn. Apple says that it designed AirTag to be “stalker-proof” with the notification capabilities if an AirTag seems to be tracking someone who isn’t the owner, but the lawsuits claim the company didn’t go far enough. The lawsuit claims that Apple was “dismissing concerns” about stalking by AirTag users.
Further, Apple says it “condemn(s) [unwanted tracking] in the strongest possible terms,” but an argument could be made that product warnings don’t go far enough. Here’s the hitch: The person who owns the (allegedly) defective item is not the same as the person suffering harm. The owner is using the item to harm someone else in these situations. So, who would Apple warn? A warning on the package isn’t helpful because that would be read by the purchaser, and the purchaser isn’t the victim.
Apple has the capability to launch a wide-scale media campaign to alert the public about the dangers of AirTags, and to alert Android users that they can (and perhaps should) use the Tracker Detect app on their phones.
The current lawsuit brought by plaintiffs Ms. Hughes and Jane Doe claims that Apple’s liability is related to negligence, design defects and privacy violations.
What to do if you’re being tracked by an AirTag
- If you are notified by your phone that there’s an AirTag that appears to be traveling with you, don’t go home or to work (or to any other place that would give someone information about your daily activities). Instead, head to a public place like a supermarket, shopping center, library, or—better yet—a police station.
- Once you arrive at a safe location, search for the AirTag in your belongings and vehicle. AirTags are small, and much depends on whether the tag’s owner has access to the interior of your car or your possessions. If the person has access to the inside of your car, it could be wedged in seats, buried in the glove compartment, underneath seats, in the trunk, under a corner of carpet, etc.
Similarly, if it’s someone you live or work with, it could be in your coat pocket, handbag, etc.
Even if you’re being tracked by a stranger, they could have easily come behind you and slipped an AirTag into your bag without your knowing. Yes, they have to really want to know where you are (an AirTag retails for around $30) but these things happen.
- If you locate an AirTag that isn’t yours in your vehicle or belongings, you can remove the battery to disable it. Note that the AirTag will notify the owner that it has been disabled. You can also choose not to do this and take it to the police for assistance, instead. If you receive a notification about an unfamiliar AirTag traveling with you, tap the notification. This will provide information including the AirTag’s serial number and the last four digits of the owner’s phone number. That could help you determine whether it belongs to someone you know.
- Take the AirTag to the police. Apple will provide the authorities with any available information about the AirTag’s owner or other relevant data.
If you have continued concerns for your safety, or if you’re afraid to return to your home, you can contact the Safety Net Project for guidance.
If you believe you’ve been stalked or illegally tracked by someone using an AirTag as a tracking device, you could be eligible to join the class action lawsuit. Contact a personal injury attorney for guidance on how to do this and to determine your eligibility.