Tracking devices: Sinister uses to track devices like Apple AirTags, Samsung GalaxySmart Tags and Tiles calls for domestic violence reform

Small tracking devices are now being pushed as everyday technology designed to make your life easier.

In this four-part investigation, 9news.com.au examines privacy concerns and fears and hunt downas well as some of the benefits they bring.

Domestic violence prevention advocates warn that digital tracking devices are being used for more sinister activities like stalking, with leaders in the field calling for the act to be included in coercive control laws being drafted .

Devices such as Apple AirTags, Samsung Galaxy Smart Tags and Tiles are designed to ensure that users do not lose items such as keys or can track their luggage in flight.

However, there is a more disturbing side to using these devices.

An accessory from Apple, the AirTag is a small device that helps people keep track of their belongings, using Apple’s Find My network to locate lost items like keys, a wallet or a bag. (Getty)

Karen Bentley is a domestic and family violence expert and the CEO of WESNET, a leading organization supporting Australian women and children who have been affected.

“We know from research we did in late 2020 that there has been a steady increase over the last five years in the amount of tracking we see with GPS devices,” Bentley told 9news.com .to.

The studyundertaken with Curtin University, found an increase of nearly 250% since research in 2015, and included incidences where trackers were used on objects and people.

“We live in a world where technology makes tracking, investigation and abuse much easier,” she said.

“We see things like Tile trackers and other types of tracking devices being used.

“Apple AirTag is a relative newcomer.”

There are safeguards built into the devices to protect people from harassment, which Bentley says is a “red flag for future abuse.”

We dropped an Apple Air tag in a colleague's bag at the office.
Tracking devices can give a person live information about the location of the person wearing them. (New)

There are apps you can use on iPhones and Android devices to detect Bluetooth signals.

“Australians want perpetrators to be held accountable”

Australia’s Attorney General has agreed to create a national plan to deal with coercive controlbut it’s still not the law.

White Ribbon Australia National Director Allan Ball has called for harassment using technology to be criminalized under these new laws.

“Australians want perpetrators of coercive control to be held accountable – and they want to prevent more women from being subjected to this type of intimate violence in the future,” he told 9news.com.au.

“The tech industry has an important role to play in helping to prevent and stop abuse through their tracking platforms and we would welcome ongoing steps to better strengthen privacy and encryption systems.”

The 9news.com.au team wanted to see how easily an Airtag could be used to track someone and if the safeguards worked.  The device was dropped in a colleague's bag at the office.
It is feared that the small, inexpensive devices are unknowingly slipped into someone else’s possessions. (New)

“The police will take action”: technical warnings for officers

The use of tracking devices is not new, but Victoria Cybercrime Squad Police say they are aware that the relatively new technology can facilitate the commission of domestic violence, particularly given its size and its price.

Detective Inspector Boris Buick of Victoria’s Cybercrime Squad said an alert about the devices was sent to his Family Violence Command two years ago.

“A small GPS tracking device such as an AirTag can be hidden or concealed in a bag, or on a vehicle under the license plate, tow bar, or in a fuel cap,” Buick said.

He said there had been “a low number” of reported cases, while police forces across the rest of Australia told 9news.com.au there had been no specific reports of harassment with such devices.

    Samsung Galaxy SmartTag
The Galaxy Samsung SmartTag. (Samsung)

Buick said officers would take action against anyone using them in this way.

“If you have located a tracking device, if you fear being tracked or if your safety is at risk, report it directly to the police,” he said.

“Police across the state are partnering with various specialized helplines to facilitate car and cell phone checks for tracking devices and spyware.

Survivors fear ‘terrifying’ technological advances

The Queensland mother now works to help other victims of domestic abuse and fears such small, easy-to-use devices will replace other items used to track women, as seen overseas.

“These beacons…it’s going to make life harder and less safe for women or children,” O’Brien told 9news.com.au.

Simone O'Brien survived a horrific domestic violence attack
Simone O’Brien survived a horrific domestic violence attack. (Provided)

“If he puts it in a child’s bag while he’s taking care of them and she doesn’t know about it, that’s a very scary situation.”

The domestic violence campaigner is concerned about how the devices can be used covertly given their size.

“It’s that small, if he had fallen in there, you wouldn’t even know it,” she said.

“The same in a car. If a window is open, you can just throw it in.

“Today’s technology is getting worse in this area because things are getting smaller and harder to see.”

Nokia 3310 (2000)

Cell phones of the last 30 years

What are companies doing to mitigate risk?

Apple said the tech company had worked closely with security groups and law enforcement, but declined to comment when contacted by 9News.com.au.

“Through our own assessments and these discussions, we’ve identified even more ways to update AirTag security warnings and protect against further unwanted tracking,” the website said.

The devices currently beep, but Apple plans to increase the volume to make them easier to identify.

The tech company said it also wants to develop more accurate location information when people try to find it once notified in their app.

For example, the precision search tool will indicate that the object is two feet to your left.

Apple has not specified when these updates will be rolled out.

Apple said it would turn over account information from a paired AirTag if police investigate a criminal case.

Each AirTag has a unique serial number, and paired AirTags are associated with an Apple ID,” Apple said.

“Apple may provide linked account details in response to a subpoena or valid request from law enforcement.”

Tile sells its Bluetooth tracker for $39.95.

A Tile Bluetooth device.
Tile sells its Bluetooth tracker for $39.95. (Provided)

Tile offers a feature on its downloaded app called Scan and Secure that can detect unknown Tiles. However, a spokesperson acknowledged the limitations.

“To address the broader issue of large-scale harassment, there needs to be an industry-wide solution built into the platform to provide relief to the consumer,” the Tile spokesperson told 9news. com.au.

“We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with other companies and strive to start those conversations.”

Samsung Electronics Australia said it does not directly sell the Galaxy SmartTag in the country when contacted by 9news.com.au.

But they can be purchased through third parties like Amazon for around $40.

The Bluetooth device is designed to operate within 120 meters of the phone.

If it’s further away, users can still get details of where it’s been and where it is now through Samsung’s SmartThings Find network, which uses other nearby Samsung phones.

Users can “call” the beacon to hear its ringtone emit, alerting them to its location, such as if it is attached to their lost keys.

“It’s easy to scroll through the location history of the beacon to trace it,” Samsung said on its website.

However, the firm has launched an “unknown tag search” which allows users to search for suspicious tags.

Tracking not exclusive to new technologies

Although these new beacons have been the focus of this probe, technologies such as AirPods, car navigation systems or tablets can also be used to track.

Danielle, a woman from Queensland, who did not want her surname used, discovered that her partner had been accessing her iPad for three months to track her movements.

“It was linked to my Apple ID, my calendar and everything that syncs with my iPad,” she told 9News.com.au

“They were able to see all my movements, meetings, e-mails and texts.

“I felt extremely violated.”

But with no proof or evidence, he was told the police could not pursue the case.

She was helped by the Brisbane Domestic Violence Service, who provided safety advice and support.

If you are the target of abuse, don’t try to handle it alone. If you feel unsafe, contact the police on 000 or call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

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