An AirTag next to an iPhone in a beam of light.
starry-sky-visual/Shutterstock.com

AirTags are small, coin-sized Bluetooth trackers that allow you to locate items near and far. This functionality is powered by Apple’s network of hundreds of millions of iPhones, iPads, and Macs already in the wild, providing unprecedented coverage on a global scale.

While it might be tempting to put an AirTag on everything, there’s one thing you definitely shouldn’t track—and there are many reasons why that is the case.

AirTags Are Designed to Track Objects

The one thing that AirTags were not designed to track is people. There are naturally quite a few ethical and legal issues involved with tracking someone against their will, but that’s only half of the story.

AirTags are designed to track things that you interact with regularly, whether it’s your bag, your golf clubs, or even your cat. It’s reasonable to expect that your iPhone will “touch base” with these items regularly while you’re at home or work.

Locating a Nearby AirTag with an iPhone
Apple

When an AirTag is away from its owner for three days, it starts emitting noise in the hope that it will be found. You can trigger this noise manually using the Find My app on an iPhone or a Mac, or at iCloud.com, if you notice that something is missing.

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AirTags are water-resistant (with an IP67 rating) and have year-long battery life, but they’re not foolproof. Someone with an iPhone will need to walk within range of the item for it to show up on the network, or be close enough to hear the noise it’s emitting.

Tracking People Is Unethical (and Probably Illegal)

Tracking someone without their consent is illegal in many jurisdictions. The use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) to track suspects in the U.S. has been the subject of numerous Supreme Court rulings. Law enforcement cannot plant a GPS tracking device without a warrant, and at least 18 states in the U.S. have explicitly banned the use of a GPS device to track someone without their consent.

AirTags are not GPS devices since they use Bluetooth to notify nearby Apple gadgets of their presence. Macs, iPhones, and iPads can relay the location in which they encountered an AirTag to Apple. This distinction likely means that AirTags fall outside of current GPS-centric laws, but that shouldn’t empower would-be stalkers.

Apple AirTag in Bag
Apple

Apple has already devised anti-stalker protection for AirTags. If you have an iPhone running iOS 14.5 or newer (or an iPad running iPadOS 14.5 at least), and it detects that an AirTag that doesn’t belong to someone in the vicinity is traveling with you, it will notify you.

If you can’t find the rogue AirTag, it will start emitting a noise to help you locate it. You can then scan it with any NFC-enabled smartphone to get instructions on how to disable it by removing the battery. Apple may comply with requests from law enforcement to reveal the identity of an AirTag owner, which is possible to discover by using the serial number assigned to the device.

To be clear: There’s no way to find out who owns an AirTag by scanning it or by looking up the serial number, but Apple knows the answer.

AirTags Don’t Update in Real-Time

So what about tracking someone with their consent, like a child or a spouse? While this is far less ethically dubious, it’s also a sub-par method of tracking someone.

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AirTags don’t update in real-time since they don’t have any GPS capabilities or an internet connection. AirTags work by communicating anonymously with Apple devices that come within range. This exchange of location data doesn’t happen immediately, nor does it provide an exact location, as is the case with many GPS devices.

What AirTags are good at is giving you an idea of where an item was the last time someone with an iPhone walked past it. If you want to know where your child or spouse is right now, then AirTags are going to leave you disappointed.

What About Your Pets?

As is the case with people, AirTags were never designed to track your pets. For a pet-tracker, an AirTag can only provide a rough location without any real-time updates. If your dog runs off into the woods, you’re going to have to wait until someone with an iPhone ventures into those same woods to get a location update.

Since an AirTag that hasn’t touched base with its owner’s iPhone will start emitting a sound after three days, this could present a rather audible problem for the family cat.

Roger the Cat
Tim Brookes

For example, if your son registers and attaches an AirTag to the cat, which then ventures away from the house for a week, its AirTag will start emitting a sound that both the animal and the rest of the family will tire of quickly. Family Sharing doesn’t currently address this, although it’s something that Apple could introduce via a software update.

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Because Apple designed AirTags to respect privacy first and foremost, the family could simply disable the cat’s AirTag by removing the battery. Ultimately, though, this defeats the point of putting the tracker on it at all. There’s no way to disable the three-day audible alert because this is a deliberate choice that Apple made to prevent stalking and to help find lost items.

How to Share and Track Location the Right Way

You can track your children, spouse, or friends using their Apple devices and the Find My network. This can be set up using iMessage or the dedicated Find My app that’s included on iPhone, iPad, and Mac:

  • Using Messages: Open the Messages app, start a new conversation with the person you would like to share your location with, then tap their user icon at the top of the screen followed by “Info,” and then tap the “Share My Location” button.
  • Using Find My: Launch the Find My app and tap on the “People” tab, then scroll down to the bottom of the list and tap the “Share My Location” button, and then enter the name or email of the person you would like to share your location with.

You can also use third-party services like WhatsApp to share your location, but this might not work as well as Apple’s system-level implementation. You can use Apple’s sharing feature to share your location indefinitely, too—something that isn’t possible on WhatsApp.

Using an Apple device like an iPhone or an Apple Watch is far more effective since it doesn’t rely on passive detection by people walking past. The iPhone is able to get a GPS fix and then connect to a cellular or wireless network to report the location in real-time. You can even use the Find My app to get precise directions if you want.

The same is true for the Apple Watch, particularly the cellular variant, which doesn’t need an iPhone. The downside is that an Apple Watch or iPhone costs hundreds of dollars, while an AirTag only costs $29.

Sharing Location in iMessage

AirTags Have a Clear Purpose

AirTags were designed to find things you’ve misplaced. This includes items like bags that have been left on public transportation or keys that have fallen between the cushions on your sofa. They are not designed to provide detailed, real-time data about the item you’re tracking, or for items that you don’t interact with (or have nearby) on a regular basis.

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They weren’t designed to track people or pets, or to be an anti-theft device. Most importantly, AirTags can be easily disabled by removing the battery. The real magic of AirTags lies not in the tag itself, but in the network of devices that Apple has at its disposal.

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Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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