Woman followed by a stalker in a parking garage

Google and Apple cooperate to address unwanted tracking

Google and Apple have announced that they are looking for input from industry participants and advocacy groups on a draft specification to alert users in the event of suspected unwanted tracking. Samsung, Tile, Chipolo, eufy Security, and Pebblebee have stated that they will support the specification in future products.

The specification will consist of a set of best practices and protocols for accessory manufacturers whose products have built-in location-tracking capabilities. Examples of these accessories are the Apple AirTag, Tile Mate and Pro, Samsung SmartTag, and Google’s expected Grogu.

The basic principle of these tags is that anyone with the matching app and permissions on their device (usually a phone) contributes to find the last location where the tag was detected. The idea is that you attach a tag to the objects you are afraid of misplacing or losing, such as your keys or your laptop, or even you car, and when you need to find the object you can look in the app and see where it last made contact with a device. This type of contact is usually made over Bluetooth.

After several complaints and reports that these tracking devices were used to track people rather then finding lost objects, some states introduced bills to ban the use of trackers to aid stalking. But a bill doesn’t stop those that had criminal intentions anyway. Nor do these bills stop the car thieves that planted AirTags on expensive cars, so they could find the cars at home where they were less well protected.

Apple and Google’s specification aims to set a standard for apps that can detect and warn users about Bluetooth-trackers, and if needed tell the user how to disable them. The alliance between the two tech giants ensures that this can be done from Android phones and iPhones. Earlier, Apple introduced an app called “Tracker Detect” which made it possible to look for item trackers that are separated from their owner and that are compatible with Apple’s Find My network. The proposed specification would allow users to find Bluetooth trackers of various vendors in pretty much the same way.

The draft for the “Datatracker” specification says that the goal is to help protect the privacy of individuals from unwanted tracking by location-tracking accessories.

“Location-tracking accessories provide numerous benefits to consumers, but, as with all technology, it is possible for them to be misused. Misuse of location-tracking accessories can result in unwanted tracking of individuals or items for nefarious purposes such as stalking, harassment, and theft.  Formalizing a set of best practices for manufacturers will allow for scalable compatibility with unwanted tracking detection technologies on various smartphone platforms and improve privacy and security for individuals.”

The best practices outlined in the specification are aimed at location-enabled accessories that are small, not easily discoverable, and use Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) as the transport protocol. Interested parties are invited and encouraged to review and comment over the next three months. Following the comment period, Google and Apple will partner to address feedback and will release a production implementation of the specification for unwanted tracking alerts by the end of 2023 that will then be supported in future versions of Android and iOS.

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Pieter Arntz

Malware Intelligence Researcher

Was a Microsoft MVP in consumer security for 12 years running. Can speak four languages. Smells of rich mahogany and leather-bound books.