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Apple, Google team up to tackle Bluetooth tracker-stalking terror


The days when people can be abusively tracked using devices such as Apple’s AirTags may be numbered; both Apple and Google today jointly announced work on a new standard that will prevent this from happening and hinted that Android users will soon be able to tell whether they’re being tracked by an AirTag.

Got to stop tracker abuse

The two companies say they have been working on a new industry specification to help prevent Bluetooth location-tracking devices being used to track people without permission. They also seem to have the industry behind them, as Samsung, Tile, Chipolo, eufy Security, and Pebblebee have all expressed support for the draft specification, which has been filed with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

The idea is to make it possible for iOS and Android smartphones to detect unauthorized Bluetooth tracking devices to protect individuals against unwanted surveillance. In addition to incorporating feedback from device manufacturers, input from various safety and advocacy groups has been integrated into the development of the specification. 

Erica Olsen, senior director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s Safety Net Project said in a statement: “These new standards will minimize opportunities for abuse of this technology and decrease the burden on survivors in detecting unwanted trackers.”

In the same statement, Alexandra Reeve Givens, the Center for Democracy & Technology’s president and CEO, explained that one of the keys to protecting against this kind of abuse is, “a universal, OS-level solution that is able to detect trackers made by different companies on the variety of smartphones that people use every day.”

What problem does this solve?

Ever since Apple introduced AirTags the ether has been populated by horrific tales of various unpleasant uses of the tracking devices. While these devices are great because they link to Apple’s FindMy network and make it really easy to locate lost or stolen devices (NYPD recently gave away 500 of them to help protect against car crime), some have abused them to track people in malicious ways.

These have ranged from car thieves tracking vehicles they intend to steal to abusive partners monitoring their victims. Apple has responded in several ways, including better warnings for iPhone users in the event they have an unknown tag moving with them. That system will alert you if a tag is found. But none of these protections are completely foolproof, and some are platform specific — the warnings an iPhone user sees are not shared with Android, for example.

That’s part of what the specification tries to solve. It will allow Bluetooth location-tracking devices to be compatible with unauthorized tracking detection and alerts across iOS and Android platforms. The draft specification also offers best practices and instructions for manufacturers, should they choose to build these capabilities into their products.

It means that you’ll be able to use AirTags and other Bluetooth tracking devices to track your items, not to track people.

What Apple and Google said

“Apple launched AirTag to give users the peace of mind knowing where to find their most important items,” said Ron Huang, Apple’s vice president of sensing and connectivity. “We built AirTag and the Find My network with a set of proactive features to discourage unwanted tracking — a first in the industry — and we continue to make improvements to help ensure the technology is being used as intended.

“This new industry specification builds upon the AirTag protections, and through collaboration with Google results in a critical step forward to help combat unwanted tracking across iOS and Android,” Huang said.

“Bluetooth trackers have created tremendous user benefits, but they also bring the potential of unwanted tracking, which requires industry-wide action to solve,” said Dave Burke, Google’s vice president of engineering for Android. “Android has an unwavering commitment to protecting users, and will continue to develop strong safeguards and collaborate with the industry to help combat the misuse of Bluetooth tracking devices.”

Of course, part of the reason Apple, Google and the industry have agreed to work together is because they recognize that until individual privacy is protected few are likely to adopt these technologies. But manufacturers of connected devices want to nurture this adoption as they attempt to add features to their products.

What happens next?

The specification process works like this, nowthat  the draft has been submitted to the IETF.

  • For the next three months, interested parties can review and comment on the proposals.
  • Apple and Google will then resolve any problems raised during the review.
  • They will then introduce what’s called a production implementation of the specification by the end of 2023.
  • The two companies will then support that specification in future versions of iOS and Android.

It isn’t yet clear whether we can anticipate the specification being finalized and shipping as an OS update to supported platforms by the end of this year or in 2024, though if the standardizing process works well, perhaps it’s not too long before another stalking nightmare is terminated.

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Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.



This story originally appeared on Computerworld

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