Have you spent any time at the airport during the Holidays? You may have had to deal with long queues, lost luggage and… Apple AirTags. What is an AirTag and most importantly: how does it use Internet connectivity to help you find your missing stuff? Whether is’s your suitcase that’s lost at the airport because of a lack of baggage handlers, your laptop that you may have left at the office or simply your purse that could be lying underneath a pile of clothes somewhere in your home – let’s find out how an AirTag can help you recover it!
So first of all, what exactly is an AirTag? It’s a small flat white disc with a diameter of just over 3 centimeters, about the size of a 2 Euro coin. To buy one you’ll need to bring more money though, they go for about €35 or $30 online. You could just slip the disc inside a bag or other item you’d like to keep track of, but you can also get additional accesories like keychains or even pet collars for convenience.
Bluetooth and Ultra-Wideband
By itself, there is not an awful lot the AirTag can do, but it is equiped with various protocols that will allow you to connect it to your phone, tablet or laptop, and that’s when things get more interesting. First of all, the AirTag uses BlueTooth LE to connect to your phone. LE means Low Energy. It’s a a version of BlueTooth that uses as little energy as possible, so that the small battery inside the AirTag can power it for about a year.
Once you’ve registered your AirTag it will basically send out a message every once in a while, saying: I am here, sending out its ID. When your phone – or other device – picks up the signal, it will know the AirTag is near and more importantly that means that your luggage, bag or runaway cat are close by. Newer iPhones can also use Ultra-Wideband, a special radio technology that can help pinpoint the exact location with an accuracy of up to a centimer. You can even make the AirTag play a little sound to make it easier to find.
But my stuff is still lost!
So you can find your items when they are in the same general area as you, but what if you lost your things somewhere farther away? Fortunately, the AirTag can still help. Even while your phone is out of reach, someone else’s phone might be near your things. When their phone picks up the signal of someone’s AirTag. it will report it’s location to a central database. Once your AirTag’s location is established, you now know where to go and look. Of course, if the area where you left your belongings isn’t very busy, you may not get constant updates, but someone is bound to pass by sooner or later, right?
The AirTag has one more trick up its sleave: if you report your AirTag as lost, it will be able to share your contact information with the person that hopefully finds it. One more protocol is needed for this: if you hold your phone up to an AirTag you found, it will use NFC (Near Field Communication) to share the owners contact details and if you’re kind enough you can then get in touch with them to let them know their airline has accidentaly shipped their suitcase to Timbuktu.
So what could go wrong?
While the AirTag is meant to track your stuff, you could also use it to stalk people. Slip your AirTag into the bag of someone you’re obsessed with and you could be getting constant updates about their location. Scary stuff. Fortunately Apple has also considered this: if your phone detects an unknown AirTag that keeps following you around, it will give you a warning to check it out.
Devices like the AirTag can also turn out to be one more way to send malware to unsuspecting victims. Last year a security researcher discovered a bug: when you enter your contact information, that data isn’t properly checked. Instead of your phonenumber, you could enter some malicious code, put your AirTag in lost mode and drop it somewhere busy. Eventually someone will pick it up, scan your AirTag and be infected. Hopefully Apple got around to fixing this bug, but I could not find confirmation.
While the AirTag can communicate with Android devices up to a certain extent, they are of course most useful to people that are more deeply invested into the Apple ecosystem. If that’s not you, it’s worth checking out some alternatives like the Tile tracker or Samsung SmartTag.
Alltogether, a Bluetooth tracker is a very convenient gadget. Will you try one out? Do report your items lost and found in the comments below!