In short: trackers like Apple’s AirTags can be a godsend for people who find themselves constantly losing things, but they are also often used for illegal purposes, especially for harassment. Law enforcement officials also use AirTags in ways not provided by Apple, for example, to track the movements of drug production equipment.
Citing an official search warrant, Forbes writes that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) recently hid an Apple AirTag inside a pill pressing machine, which, in their opinion, was intended for an illegal drug manufacturer, which allowed the agency to track his movements when he left China. It is believed that this is the first case of the federal agency using Apple trackers for surveillance purposes.
GPS tracking devices have long been available to law enforcement agencies, but they are reported to often fail. A source told Forbes that these devices are bulkier and more noticeable than AirTags, which apparently have a more reliable connection. They also say that the Apple product is easier to use.
But criminals have a way to detect AirTags. There have been many incidents in which trackers have been used for harassment — a review of police records showed that one-third of AirTag incidents were related to this crime, leading to a class action lawsuit against Apple. This led Cupertino to update its iPhones to warn users if an unknown tracking device was found behind them. The detected AirTag will also make noise to determine its location.
The Drug Enforcement Administration was given permission to monitor AirTag for 45 days throughout the United States. It is unclear how useful this device was in the agency’s investigation of the drug manufacturer. The Justice Department has confirmed that the recipient of the pill press has been charged in federal court. Assuming the suspect never found the tracker, the Drug Enforcement Administration is likely to use the devices for similar surveillance programs in the future.
Law enforcement agencies may consider using Tile trackers instead of AirTags. The company’s recent Anti-Theft mode prevents them from being detected using Tile’s anti-harassment feature. The idea behind the mode is that it “makes it easier to find stolen valuables, as it becomes harder for thieves to know that an item is being tracked.” Anyone who uses this feature to harass faces a $1 million fine.