airtag: How Apple AirTag may become an ‘attractive’ tool for government agencies

Apple’s tracking device has been criticised due to stalking concerns by several users. At the same time, Apple AirTag has proved to be helpful for multiple users to find lost things — from wallets to cars. One such incident may be a use case scenario showing that the government agencies may use Apple AirTag to uncover criminality.

The popular tracking device has reportedly helped the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). According to a report by Forbes, the DEA recently used an AirTag to track the movements of a pill press — a machine used to compress powders into tablets.

The machine was first intercepted by border agents in the US in May 2022, the publication cited a search warrant as saying. The machine was found inside one of two packages coming from Shanghai, China. The border agents predicted that these packages were “destined for an illegal narcotics manufacturer”, so they contacted the DEA.

How DEA used AirTag for the drug bust
As per the warrant, the DEA agents didn’t cancel the shipment or visit the intended recipient. Instead, they decided to hide “an Apple AirTag inside the pill press so they could track its movements.”

Why DEA choose an AirTag for the mission
The search warrant noted the DEA agents have mentioned that this Apple device will give “precise location information” to “allow investigators to obtain evidence about where such individuals store drugs and/or drug proceeds, where they obtain controlled substances, and where else they distribute them.” Although there are other GPS trackers available on the market, the warrant didn’t explain why the DEA chose to use an AirTag.

The report also added that a retired detective claimed that DEA’s decision to use an AirTag might be due to the “failures in the kinds of GPS devices currently available to police.”

Why using an AirTag could’ve backfired
A few months ago, Apple announced multiple changes to AirTag’s privacy policies. These changes were focused on improving the tracking device’s privacy and tackling stalking concerns reported earlier.

These features were not available in May 2022, the time when DEA decided to use the Apple device. So, the privacy features could’ve affected any attempts by law enforcement to use an AirTag for such situations.

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For instance, as per the new policy, if an AirTag has been separated from its owner for an interval of eight to 24 hours, it will produce a sound randomly. This feature won’t allow activities like hidden location tracking (which DEA attempted) and can’t be used effectively in such circumstances.

The report didn’t mention how effective the AirTag was in this specific circumstance. The accused was charged by the state. Moreover, the report also didn’t mention if the DEA or any other law enforcement agency, has tried using an AirTag for any other investigations.

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