Source: Tech Dirt
Apple tried to create something useful and ended up empowering awful people. Meant to help its users keep an eye on things that were important to them, the small tracking devices known as AirTags were soon exploited by stalkers to track and harass their targets, leading to a class action lawsuit against the company by victims of AirTag-enabled stalking.
To decrease the risk of manipulation by malicious people, Apple introduced a few safety features. If the target was an iPhone user, the phone would warn them if an unknown AirTag was active in their immediate vicinity. The AirTags also now emit beeps when separated from the deployer for an extended period of time.
Those features meant to prevent people from stalking and malicious tracking apparently aren’t enough to deter use by federal law enforcement agencies. As Thomas Brewster reports for Forbes, the DEA has, on at least one occasion, decided AirTags are preferable to its normal GPS gear.
In May last year, border agents intercepted two packages from Shanghai, China. Inside one was a pill press, a machine used to compress powders into tablets, in the other some pill dyes. Believing that they were destined for an illegal narcotics manufacturer, the Drug Enforcement Agency was called in. DEA investigators inspected the devices but rather than cancel the shipment or pay a visit to the intended recipient, they tried something they’d never been known to try before: they hid an Apple AirTag inside the pill press so they could track its movements.
Maybe the AirTag was smaller than the DEA’s other options. Maybe the agents felt the discovery of an AirTag might lead the target to suspect something other than law enforcement surveillance. All the warrant says is that the agent requesting the warrant felt the AirTag could provide “precise location information” on the pill production products’ final destination.
Maybe the tracking worked. Both the DEA and Apple refused to comment on this novel AirTag deployment. While Apple may have considered the law enforcement implications of its tracking device, it’s powerless to prevent deployments intended to track persons or objects that don’t belong to the AirTag’s owner. And the DEA had to be aware Apple had added features meant to deter exactly this sort of tracking, but chose to go with the AirTag anyway.
Whatever the case, it appears this test run (if that what it was) worked, at least to some extent.
According to court records the intended recipient of the pill press was not charged in federal court. The DOJ, however, confirmed that he had been charged by the state.
If it can be used (or misused) by regular people, it can be used/misused by the government. If stalkers have a new toy, rest assured the government has already considered the advantages (and, maybe, even the constitutional implications) of deploying it to engage in its own form of stalking. It’s whatever the government-involved version of “buyer beware” is.
Sure, you want to keep an eye on your luggage as it makes its way into the airline industry’s less-than-predictable logistical machinery. The government might want to keep an eye on your bags as well, even if it might be less willing to reunite you with your luggage once you’ve both arrived at your destination. Tracking is tracking, and Apple may have managed to produce a better version of whatever the DEA’s relied on for years.
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