Kimberly Scroop was leaving the gym after dark last September when she received an ominous notification: “AirTag Detected Near You.”
Scroop didn’t own an AirTag and yet, the alert specified the device had been traveling with her for hours as she’d gone about her day. Terrified at the thought of an unknown person following her every move, the 28-year-old hair stylist sped from the gym to her family’s home and immediately informed her step-father. He didn’t know what an AirTag was. Scroop searched her car, her bags, and even her shoes, to no avail. The next morning, she went to the police station, expecting officers to file a report. They didn’t. In fact, even after listening to Scroop’s account—wherein she again had to describe what an AirTag was—they didn’t so much as take her name or phone number.
“They basically told me what was happening wasn’t illegal so they weren’t going to take a report or anything,” Scroop told Jezebel. “It was like, if you don’t know who it is and we don’t know who it is, how do you expect us to find out? I was like, ‘You’re the cops.’”
If someone was following Scroop, they already knew more about her than the police did.
The Bluetooth-enabled, quarter-sized, $29 AirTag, which attaches to a personal item like a wallet or pair of keys, was Apple’s iteration of the $25 Tile tracker, released years earlier. Both the Tile and the AirTag—not to mention an abundance of less popular competitors—were made with the same goal in mind: to prevent users from losing items they most valued, and to help them locate lost items faster when they inevitably did. However, it’s the latter product that was lauded (mostly by Apple) as ingenious at its April 2021 launch due to its greater location accuracy and the ubiquity of the iPhone with which it so easily pairs. For the millions who own an iPhone 11 or newer, a function called Precision Finding in the Find My app lets them track the AirTag down to the foot, with arrows on the screen quite literally guiding an owner to their device. Apple doesn’t boast, “Lose your knack for losing things,” for no reason.
Advocates for ethical tech and women’s safety sounded the alarm early on, but it wasn’t until January of this year, when Sports Illustrated model Brooks Nader revealed she was tracked by an AirTag, that anyone actually listened. After leaving a bar in New York City, Nadar said she received an unsettling alert from her iPhone: An “unknown accessory” had been detected on her person and was following her, triggering Apple’s abuse prevention system. (This system alerts iPhone users when an unknown AirTag has been detected nearby, sometimes hours after the fact. Apple released an app for Android users that allows them to manually, but not automatically, scan for trackers in December.) Nader said she suspected the device had been slipped into her coat pocket while she was sitting in a crowded restaurant earlier that evening.
The story sparked scores of terrifying TikToks and Twitter threads from young girls and women who said they’d also been victims of tracking with the aid of AirTags or similar technology. Months prior to Nader’s case, Scroop had sought refuge on the platform, sharing her experience of being tracked and her failed attempt at involving the police; the video has since been viewed over 5.5 million times. A month after Nader’s case went public, Apple issued a statement promising it would work alongside law enforcement upon request, and release additional software updates to better alert people when they’re being tracked. “Based on our knowledge and on discussions with law enforcement, incidents of AirTag misuse are rare; however, each instance is one too many,” the release read.
Given the number of unsettling reports emerging across the nation—from New York to Michigan to California to Ohio—there’s overwhelming evidence that these small devices are having an outsized impact, especially on the safety of women. And though it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that AirTags and the like would be used for nefarious purposes, reform on the part of both law enforcement and Big Tech remains disturbingly hard to find.
Reports of people being tracked with tag and tile devices go back at least six years. In 2016, Alexandra Ahmadi, a former Miss San Antonio, garnered headlines after she found a Tile tracker in her purse hours after leaving a birthday celebration at a bar. Similarly, in 2018, a Houston woman reported finding a Tile tracker in the center console of her car after she had been followed by an ex-boyfriend. In Ahmadi’s case, police could not identify the man she suspected put the tracker in her purse, and the Houston victim said it was “difficult” for her and local police to get information associated with the Tile account.
Though technology is evolving, stalking itself is nothing new. Erica Olsen is the director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV)’s Safety Net project, which focuses on technology’s impact on domestic and sexual violence crises. Olsen confirms she’s witnessed a troubling increase in tag and tile tracking but is quick to note the problem far exceeds that of any one form of technology. “The issue itself is not just about AirTags,” she told Jezebel. “Tracking as a tactic of abuse is much broader than AirTags and has been a consistent issue within the domestic violence and stalking world for a long time.”
Nearly one in three women in the U.S. have reported being stalked—whether they were followed by the perpetrator, cyberstalked, tracked via an electronic device, or stalked in some other way—at some point in their lifetime, according to a 2016/2017 report from the CDC. (One in six men reported being stalked in their lifetime.) The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that in 2019 alone, 3.4 million people aged 16 and over were stalked in the U.S., with 14.4 percent of those victims saying their whereabouts were tracked by an electronic device or application.
In cases of stalking with the help of tags and tiles, some women’s safety advocates argue police inherently have the greater responsibility to protect people than Big Tech. But the police have failed victims in cases of stalking for decades—particularly in cases of stalking that involve domestic and intimate partner violence, as the vast majority do. And in Olsen’s experience, victims who recently approached law enforcement about tag and tile tracking encountered discrepancies in protocol depending on jurisdiction and case details. Scroop and Nader, for instance, didn’t know and couldn’t identify their perpetrators; Scroop couldn’t locate the AirTag used to track her. In cases like theirs, without an easy way to prove who placed the tag or tile, law enforcement is less likely to make arrests or press charges, leaving some victims to depend on services from women’s advocacy organizations, such as private housing, financial and legal assistance, and education on how to use technology safely.
Of course, those organizations can’t solve every problem on their own. “Everything is going to have its own limits, unfortunately,” said Olsen, “but I think the best thing you can do for survivors is try and extend a holistic approach, where they know all types of services and resources, and they’re able to get to the right ones for them.”
Even when a victim is taken seriously by the police, Maggie Delano, an assistant professor of engineering at Swarthmore College, worries whether existing law enforcement is any match for new and developing technology. “We’re hoping that law enforcement and other organizations will actually learn more about this technology, because this has been happening with tile and GPS trackers for a long time,” said Delano, who has studied ethics and Big Tech for years, writing extensively on the varying harms of electronic monitoring. “It’s just that Apple has made it so easy to do that it’s now getting national news coverage.”
For their part, law enforcement officers have expressed concerns with tag and tile tracking in recent years, often warning people to be “vigilant,” yet offering little else on the matter. A detective in Scroop’s home state of Arizona recently asserted that it is Apple that isn’t doing enough to prevent stalking, noting nine cases of AirTag tracking in her jurisdiction. Unlike the officers Scroop dealt with, at least she knew what an AirTag was.
Hypothetically, if someone were to receive a notification of an unwanted AirTag and then locate it in a pocket or bag or behind the license plate of a car, the tag would have a serial number that would pinpoint its account owner. If probable cause is determined by law enforcement, a simple subpoena would be enough for Apple to share that account information so the police could identify the owner of the tag and, one hopes, protect the victim. But as it stands, it is notoriously difficult for stalking victims to see justice, whether it comes in the form of civil remedies, felony or misdemeanor punishments, or fines. The goal post is always moving.
Stalking is illegal in all 50 states, but each statute that prohibits it has unique language, Elaina Roberts, former prosecutor and current tech safety legal manager at NNEDV, told Jezebel. What’s considered prosecutable under one might not be under another, as the standard of fear necessary from the victim, the types of behaviors that qualify as stalking, and what exactly constitutes a “pattern of behavior” varies from state to state. Roberts also notes that technology isn’t always covered under stalking statutes, and that listing every single mode of technology that could be used to stalk people would be impossible, considering the near-constant onslaught of new and developing devices and systems.
“What’s different about stalking with the use of AirTags or Tile is the type of technology used to operate them. These operate off of Bluetooth, and not GPS,” she said. “Many statutes include tracking and/or monitoring through the use of GPS, but Bluetooth doesn’t necessarily qualify under that.” However, she highlights how amending the language in legislation—with phrases like “including but not limited to,” for example—would cover emerging technologies like AirTags and Tiles and, crucially, lead to more successful prosecutions.
However, asking victims of tag and tile stalking to wait as law enforcement and legislation play catch up doesn’t seem much of a comfort.
Both Olsen and Delano say more victims could see some semblance of justice should law enforcement and Big Tech work together with advocacy groups like NNEDV, tapping their firsthand knowledge on empathetic communication with victims. Ethical tech experts have advised this solution for years, though it’s not always practiced. Nor would a partnership between Big Tech and law enforcement necessarily guarantee safety. Olsen reminds us that no matter if or how law enforcement, Big Tech, and advocacy groups join forces, a “one size fits all” strategy doesn’t help victims, even if the type of device-based stalking is the same.
“Survivors don’t have just one need. One survivor is not going to want to involve law enforcement for whatever reason, while another might want that as an option,” she explained. “I think the best collaborations are the ones that are created on this foundation of trusting survivors, and letting them lead the process.”
Noting Apple’s recent public promise to work with police, as well as an uptick in law enforcement’s outreach to advocacy organizations like NNEDV for advice, Olsen says she’s beginning to see this in action: “We’ve heard of departments sharing samples of subpoena language, so [police] are kind of coordinating their office efforts to get the proper user information from Apple and pursue these cases.”
With arguably outdated law enforcement procedures and an overall lack of helpful legislation being implemented throughout the country, it’s Big Tech companies that have the most power to make the most immediate impact, especially when you consider that a company as powerful and well-resourced as Apple absolutely should have seen this coming. However, even if Apple were to recall AirTags altogether, or stop making them, the non-updated and unsafe models have already been released to the public. Could the genie be put back into the bottle?
“I don’t think so,” Delano said. “One of the fundamental issues here is that Apple did not think of any of this when they were designing these tags. We now have these technologies designed for one purpose being reappropriated and misused, and that has created a situation where finding property is prioritized over the safety and wellbeing of people—women, or anyone else who’s concerned about being tracked without their consent.”
Since the start of 2022, police have arrested a military soldier who is accused of using an AirTag to track his estranged wife in Tennessee, and in Connecticut, a man was arrested for tracking a woman with an AirTag and charged with stalking, as well as violating a protective order and breach of peace. Pennsylvania and Texas have recently seen their own cases. Law enforcement officers continue to issue warnings on AirTags and other tracking technology. Meanwhile, state houses in Pennsylvania and Wyoming have introduced new legislation against tag and tile stalking—although, Olsen points out, tag and tile stalking is still stalking, and stalking is a crime. Legislation shouldn’t need to call out tile and tag stalking specifically for it to be treated as such. “It’s not that we have a lack of laws, it’s almost like we’re not seeing the forest for the trees,” she said.
An Apple representative confirmed to Jezebel via email that this week’s iOS 15.4 update includes a security alert for first-time AirTag users that stipulates nonconsensual AirTag tracking is a crime in many regions throughout the world, and that law enforcement can request identifying information about the owner of an AirTag. Additionally, Tile announced it would implement a Scan and Secure feature to help anyone with the Tile app on their phone find unwanted trackers. However, that feature, along with other improvements proposed by Apple to make the AirTag less dangerous, have yet to be released.
Without the privilege of an updated and compatible smartphone, competent police response, or most glaringly, actual possession of the tile or tag in question, there’s ample evidence to argue that a victim won’t get closure. Even Nader, who was quite literally photographed speaking to an officer outside of a local precinct in January, wasn’t able to file a report as police told her a crime had not been committed.
Scroop had no assistance or support, only fear, in the weeks that followed her own experience. She grappled with such anxiety that she didn’t leave her home. She was consumed by questions: Who could’ve planted the AirTag—and where? “I feel like there’s probably a lot of girls like me who never get answers and just kind of move on with life as best as they can,” she said. “But law has definitely not caught up with technology.”
Nearly six months have passed since she received the notification, and Scroop still has not found any device, nor has she conclusively determined who would be motivated to take such measures to learn her whereabouts. In sobering acts of self-preservation, she switched gyms and purchased a new car. She now carries up to six weapons, including knives and pepper spray, in her purse and vehicle at all times.