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Domestic violence advocates worried stalkers would use Apple’s AirTags. A new report proves them right

April 7, 2022, 6:05 PM UTC

Time for Apple to face facts: like it or not, the company is in the stalking business.

That’s certainly not what Apple intended 12 months ago when it released AirTags, the company’s sleek location-tracking devices. Apple officials marketed the product as a convenient, affordable ($29 for one, $99 for four) tool to keep tabs on keys, wallets, vehicles, and other easy-to-lose items.

But as expected, AirTags have become a product du jour for men stalking women. And try as Apple might to engineer its way out of this problem, company executives will soon have to decide whether the potential harm caused by AirTags outweighs the consumer benefits and corporate profits.

A new report Wednesday by VICE offers an early peek into the scope of Apple’s AirTags issue, providing some preliminary data on illicit use of the tracking technology. 

The news outlet submitted records requests to dozens of large U.S. police departments, seeking all police reports during an eight-month period that mentioned AirTags. Only eight agencies responded.

Those departments documented 50 cases of women calling the police after receiving notifications that they were being tracked by an AirTag they didn’t own. (iPhone owners automatically get alerts about suspicious AirTags monitoring their movement, but Android users must download a separate app to receive notifications.) 

Half of the 50 women named a male harasser suspected of planting an AirTag, with several reporting that they frequently saw their stalker unexpectedly following them.

Given these figures, we can reasonably estimate that the number of cases of men stalking women with AirTags reaches at least into the hundreds—and more likely into the thousands. 

While the VICE report doesn’t name the eight agencies that provided records, available data shows that those departments certainly represent a tiny fraction of the country. Consider that the nation’s eight largest local police departments by officer count—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, Washington Metropolitan, Dallas, and Miami-Dade—only serve 7% of the U.S. population.

We also know some women aren’t aware that they’re being tracked, particularly those without iPhones. And as domestic violence advocates note, some stalking victims do not contact the police after discovering surveillance technology, out of fear of provoking a violent abuser.

This outcome was entirely predictable. Since their launch, several journalists have written about tracking experiments they conducted using AirTags, illustrating the potential for improper use. Domestic violence advocates also warned Apple about the technology, citing their experiences with older, less sophisticated location-tracking products.

“I don’t expect products to be perfect the moment they hit the market, but I don’t think they would have made the choices that they did if they had consulted even a single expert in intimate partner abuse,” Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Washington Post in May 2021.

Apple has defended the product by pointing to its consistent addition of safety tools, such as the notification system and unique AirTag IDs, which allow police to more easily identify individuals misusing the devices. To its credit, Apple’s AirTags offer significantly more security features than other location-tracking merchandise on the market.

Apple certainly shouldn’t be held liable for all instances of illicit use of its products. Nobody blames Apple when its customers commit cybercrimes using a MacBook.

Nevertheless, Apple still faces a moral and reputational quandary: are the everyday conveniences and relatively modest revenues generated by AirTags worth the injury to women? 

So far, Apple has answered in the affirmative. But as the VICE report shows, it’s a much colder calculus than Apple would like.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions for Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

She’s not saying ‘no.’ Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called Thursday for a cautious approach to integrating cryptocurrency into American financial systems, heralding the potential for digital assets while warning about their potentially destabilizing effects, Yahoo! Finance reported. Yellen’s comments, made during her first speech on cryptocurrency, follow President Joe Biden’s executive order last month directing a government-wide study on crypto regulation. Yellen argued that the creation of a central bank digital currency could foster more efficient and trustworthy financial transactions, but its development would take years to complete.

Buffett goes PC. HP shares jumped 16% in mid-day trading Thursday on news that Berkshire Hathaway acquired a major stake in the computer and printer company, CNBC reported. The Warren Buffett-led holding firm disclosed late Wednesday that it had acquired nearly 121 million shares of HP, or about 11% of the company. HP’s stock price has nearly tripled since the start of the pandemic, buoyed by an increase in demand for personal computers and a corporate reshuffling by third-year CEO Enrique Lores.

A pretty quarter. Samsung expects to open the year with its best first-quarter profit since 2018, riding strong demand for memory chips and better-than-expected smartphone sales, Reuters reported Thursday. In a preliminary earnings release, the South Korean electronics company pegged its first-quarter profits at $11.6 billion, solidly beating analyst estimates of $10.9 billion. Samsung also forecasted record-high quarterly revenues of roughly $63 billion, an 18% year-over-year increase.

SEC on the prowl. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Amazon’s handling of disclosures related to allegations that company employees used non-public sales data to guide their private-label manufacturing decisions, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. The inquiry follows a Journal report that some Amazon employees mined the company’s e-commerce platform to identify popular items sold by third-party vendors, then used that information to drive decisions on making knockoff products under the Amazon brand. The SEC polices corporate communication with investors, issuing civil penalties when companies mislead shareholders or fail to meet disclosure requirements.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

All politics is local. In the run-up to their historic unionization victory last week, members of the Amazon Labor Union decided to go it alone, spurning support from Big Labor. That successful approach has prompted some soul-searching within the nation’s largest labor groups, which are questioning whether grassroots organizing efforts might produce more wins than efforts marshaled by large, well-known unions, according to The New York Times. The president of the American Postal Workers Union called the ALU’s triumph “a wake-up call to the rest of the labor movement,” adding that “we have to be homegrown.”

From the article:

Unlike traditional unions, the Amazon Labor Union relied almost entirely on current and former workers rather than professional organizers in its campaign at a Staten Island warehouse. For financing, it turned to GoFundMe appeals rather than union coffers built from the dues of existing members. It spread the word in a break room and at low-key barbecues outside the warehouse.

In the end, the approach succeeded where far bigger, wealthier and more established unions have repeatedly fallen short.

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Merrick Garland unveils huge effort to shut down Putin’s ‘botnet’ and warns Russia: ‘It does not matter how far you sail your yacht’, by Jonathan Vanian

MacKenzie Scott, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg all use these popular—and controversial—accounts to give away their billions, by Maria Aspan

Mark Zuckerberg says Meta employees refer to him as the ‘Eye of Sauron,’ but thinks the nickname comes from a place of love, by Tristan Bove

How to watch MLB’s 2022 Opening Day for free — and without cable, by Chris Morris

BEFORE YOU GO

Burn that cash. We can debate the wisdom of Meta exploring the creation of a virtual, non-blockchain currency for eventual use in the metaverse, as The Financial Times reported Wednesday. I’m certainly dubious (why give Meta more centralized control over our money?), but I get the general gist. The one thing we can all agree on: kill the “Zuck Bucks” name now. Bury it deep, deep underground. Never let it see the light of day again. Sure, it’s probably just some cheeky name used internally by bored Metamates. But let’s nip this one in the bucks.

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