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AirTags are becoming an annoying headache for Apple

Apple is facing another lawsuit, but this one could define the future of AirTags. Two women who were harassed with AirTags have filed a class action lawsuit against Apple in a district court in Northern California. The plaintiffs cite incidents in which former classmates hid AirTags in a car wheel and in a child’s backpack to track their whereabouts and harass them.

Apple introduced AirTags in 2021. They cost $29 and connect to iPhones and iPads via Bluetooth. These small devices are used to track on a virtual map the location of the objects to which they are attached, be it keys, wallets or luggage.

An Apple AirTag attached to a keychain. Photo: Getty Images.

“What sets AirTag apart from any competing product is its unmatched accuracy, ease of use (it integrates seamlessly into Apple’s line of products) and affordability,” the lawsuit states, according to NPR. “At only $29, it has become the weapon of choice for bullies and abusers.”

A plaintiff alleges that after her divorce from her ex-husband, he left an AirTag in their son’s backpack. She tried to disable it, but got another one soon after. The other plaintiff, identified as Lauren Hughes, said after breaking up with a man for three months, he began calling her from blocked numbers, created fake profiles to follow her social media accounts and left threatening voicemails.

The ordeal is disturbing, but it is not the first of its kind. Since AirTags went on sale, reports of harassment and their use to steal cars have increased. But this time, Apple was dragged into court for a rather wide-ranging set of allegations.

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The plaintiffs accuse Apple of gross negligence, claiming that the company rushed to introduce a product without proper safeguards.

Design has also been criticized, with trackers not working as expected, despite Apple’s claim that AirTags are “stalker-proof”. The lawsuit states that “AirTag’s design flaw was a material factor” in causing the damage.

Released by Apple in 2021, AirTags cost $29 and connect to iPhones and iPads via Bluetooth.  Photo: Getty Images.

Released by Apple in 2021, AirTags cost $29 and connect to iPhones and iPads via Bluetooth. Photo: Getty Images.

Lawsuits against Apple

Among the 12 lawsuits facing Apple, the plaintiffs allege that Apple violated their privacy by geo-tracking them, violated state privacy laws and engaged in deceptive marketing to mislead the public that AirTags were safe. The lawsuit makes clear that “each plaintiff continues to be at risk of unwanted and illegal tracking via an AirTag device.”

And more importantly, the lawsuit is not limited to demanding Apple for damages, but also requests injunctive relief, such as for Apple to delete all location data records of the plaintiffs and prevent them from being tracked.

The plaintiffs claim that the security measures Apple has put in place are “sadly inadequate”. Apple’s own security updates in the past show that it was aware of the flaws and actively sought to fix them as more abusive use cases emerged. The lawsuit also highlights the security imbalance between iPhone users and those using an Android phone: the former can receive notifications that someone is spying on them with an AirTag; the seconds, no.

Harassment is also not prosecuted in the same way in all states and in many cases the victim receives little or no legal protection or support. In such a situation, it is Apple’s responsibility to take security measures that prevent this kind of incident worldwide.

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As of April this year, at least 150 complaints have been filed for alleged misuse of AirTags for harassment purposes. In terms of net sales figures, according to analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, Apple plans to ship 35 million units worldwide. How much could Apple lose?

The lawsuit seeks to have all AirTag users in the United States receive compensation that could range from $50 to $1,000. The amount of the settlement will increase depending on the number of members of the group who adhere to the lawsuit.

Assuming it ends up being a loss, Apple is more than capable of dropping a few hundred million dollars to fix the problem, and has done so on several occasions in the past. But the bigger question is AirTag’s existence, not just as a product, but as a category.

What does this mean for the future of AirTags?

Depending on the outcome and whether the states (where the victims live) wage an individual battle against Apple for the privacy and security of users, it could call into question the existence of AirTags as a product category.

Apple is fiercely resistant to protecting an established product like iPhones and Macs from such legal challenges because it brings in billions of dollars each year. As for AirTags, they are still in their first generation phase. But the risks they generated are much more serious, and not merely hypothetical.

It would be unwise to speculate that a single court challenge could spell the end of AirTags, but it cannot be completely ruled out. If the cascading effect spreads to other states and more victims file lawsuits, that could happen. Do not rule out the possibility of an investigation by regulatory agencies, which are increasingly aware of the affairs of big technology under the chairmanship of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan.

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Right now, Apple has several options on the table. Wave your engineering magic wand to fix all the bugs, recall millions of units sold and replace them with better (read: safer) upgrades, or completely rethink your strategy for the next generation AirTag. Whatever the outcome, this lawsuit will likely be the litmus test for Apple’s coin-sized object tracker.

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