13 AirTag Tracking Scenarios

Originally published at: 13 AirTag Tracking Scenarios - TidBITS

Apple’s new tracking devices have a lot of potential uses: some good and some not so good. We look at a number of likely scenarios and how they could play out.


What a useful outline, Glenn. Thanks for that. Lots to consider as I purchase a flotilla of them for the clan here.

iCloud security becomes even more important for Apple, I’ll have to review the uptake of 2FA within my family.


Lets assume AirTags takes off and Apple sells a billion of them. Then I can imagine a scenario where one’s iphone records encounters with dozens of (other people’s) AirTags during the course of a day, and then relaying the locations back to Apple. This means that it has to turn on the power-hungry gps each time to record the location (which reduces battery life) and also use up your cell data if you’re not on wifi!

Core Location doesn’t work that way, though.

  • First, Macs don’t have GPS chips. They’re calculating location through Wi-Fi positioning and some information Apple apparently can garner from routers and nearby devices.
  • Second, iPhones and iPads are already constantly computing their position using GPS, cellular tower connections, and Wi-Fi positioning. That combination of information provides high precision and only engages the GPS as needed, though GPS radios are vastly more efficient than several years ago, in part because they are assisted (A-GPS) via information downloaded directly instead of slowly retrieved from GPS satellites.

The amount of data involved is minuscule. And you can opt out: just disabled Find My network in iOS, iPadOS, or macOS, and your device won’t relay location information of Find My items.

Your article brought up one use case I hadn’t thought of, finding your car in the parking lot. With an “old” iPhone X, would I likely be able to find my car in a multi-level lot and I mean the kind that continuously spirals up or down?

Would it be better if my wife and I used different AirTags in the car for this use? If so will we be getting annoying beeps about being tracked by our spouses. Sometimes I don’t use the car for as long as a week.

Currently my car isn’t worth enough to worry about thief.

Possibly. If your AirTags check in with the associated owner every three days or more frequently, they won’t beep. However, you will get the “moving with you” alert in the right circumstances, though you can disable that settings entirely in the Find My app (tap the Me button) or you can dismiss it or pause notifications when it appears.

But AirTags don’t work with Family Sharing or other people’s devices. So you can only see the current position of an AirTag registered to your own iCloud account.

Even the latest and greatest iPhones get really warm when you constantly run their GPS. Not a problem if you’re driving and the iPhone is hooked up to power, but if you’re on a trail and not lugging around an extra battery pack it’s definitely an issue. Efficiency may be better, but GPS location gathering is still a battery killer, there’s no denying that.

That’s not opt-out. That’s all or nothing. I don’t want to give up using Find My to locate my wife via her iPhone downtown. I still don’t want to relay AirTag information to Apple. Why should I? I don’t have AirTags and they’re not paying me to work for them. But of course Apple doesn’t expose that kind of granular choice. Bummer. I guess because they want all iPhone users to work towards their Find My relay network, not just those that opt in. Funny how when its Facebook and data gathering, they feel very different about forcing people to submit than when it’s about forcing them to work towards expanding Apple’s reach.

Glenn - would it be possible to put an AirTag on a golf ball? That would be really useful to me.


One of the things I most would want it for is helping my father keep track of my fairly demented mother and while I arranged so she could use an old iPhone, it won’t work unless the tracker is really small enough so we can be sure it follows her. But the alerts these makes would defeat the purpose (to some degree). Now she is not having an iPhone with her. One needs a way to permanently turn off these notification when it is carried by someone without a phone.

Anything is possible, given enough glue.

Of course, the ball will no longer fly properly, will definitely not be within game regulations, and the tag will probably stop working after you hit it the first time.

Another way is to turn off the BT radio if you don’t use it when you are out and about (I believe that you can toggle it with Hey Siri, turn on Bluetooth). Because these devices are using BT to connect with devices, this should stop tracking other people’s iPhones, iPads, and AirTags (and the third party devices licensing this technology). Of course, this also makes tracking your own iPhone harder if you happen to lose it.


Running the map in the foreground with the screen on isn’t the same as using the GPS function, and it varies when you’re in a city and in the countryside. It’s not a battery killer—apps that rely on GPS heavily and remain active in the foreground are.

That is incredibly specious.

Only if you didn’t plan to strike the ball.

But Find My network equipped golf balls could be a big seller from a third party.

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Yes, it might suffice for this, although there are privacy and legal reasons that Apple hasn’t optimized it for human tracking. It’s not reliable enough, really. I can’t see a future in which Apple makes person tracking try to provide fewer alerts, because that would lead to its increased abuse.

My first thought was that as well, though, of course, more expensive. But with further thought I guessed that the golf ball manufacturers probably prefer it when golf balls are hard/impossible to find.

That’s incorrect.

What they are saying is that in order to continue to do with your own devices (entirely independent of other iOS users) what you used to, you now need to opt in to relaying to Apple information related to other people’s gadgets. And that’s just not OK.

Leave me alone with the whole AirTag tracking business. If you guys want to get into all your tracking/stalking issues, go right ahead, but leave me out of it. That said, leave me Find My for my own iPhones just as it’s always been. That’s not too much to ask.

Forcing people to submit by threatening removal of functionality in my book is coercion. Of course they want their tracking network to be as extensive as possible (and that requires every iOS user play along), but on my device their wish definitely doesn’t carry more weight than what I am willing to accept.

I could just turn off BT, but since Apple didn’t equip my iPhone with a headphone port, I went out and bought AirPods Pro. And of course without BT, those become $250 landfill. Another nice ‘nudge’. :laughing:

Apple does not sell any of the info they gather from Find My to third parties, and they will not be used for commercial purposes. Everything is encrypted, and the data is 100% anonymous.

“ Third-party products must adhere to all the privacy protections of the Find My network that Apple customers rely on. Approved products can be added to the new Items tab and will feature a “Works with Apple Find My” badge to clearly communicate to users that the product is compatible with the Find My network and the Find My app.”

And AirTags can only be set up and used by their owners, minimizing the chances of stalkers using them to track unsuspecting victims. There are also more privacy features. And AirTags will make a noise if they are wandering around away from an owner for a while. It’s nothing even resembling what Facebook or any other social network does, internally or externally.

Yes, I get the problem, but maybe it could be handled through family sharing … we will see what happens there.

It’s not “your own devices.” You’re using their global network that is an optional service provided by other owners of other devices. The information is secured in such a fashion that details cannot be extracted by Apple (both in their documentation and so far, by security researchers).

If everyone chose to not relay Find My data, then the network stops working. It’s crowdsourced information, not entirely voluntarily (since it’s enabled by default).

That’s a really odd way to look at an optional add-on feature that requires participation of other individuals with agency about what they do!

Turning Bluetooth off would also disable your device’s ability to advertise its location; turning off the Find My network would accomplish the same function without losing Bluetooth functionality.

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I think you may be having a spot of confusion. Maybe that explains why you believe functionality is being removed. Find My now exists in two forms:

  • “Traditional” Find My, which allows an iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Watch to be tracked and remotely interacted with (including playing a sound or erasure) over an Internet connection of any kind.
  • Find My network, which is a crowdsourced network that comprises all iPhones, iPads, and Macs that have Find My enabled.

If you look in iOS/iPadOS Settings and macOS Find My settings, there are two distinct options. You can enable traditional Find My without enabling the Find My network. Thus, you have the classic Internet-based two-way finding option while completely opting out of the one-way location-reporting option.

AirTags only use the Find My network. iPhones, iPads, Macs, and Watches can use both. AirPods Pro and some Beats headphones use Find My locally only, and aren’t accessible via the Internet or via the Find My network.