How the company engineered its way out of a major privacy issue.
On Tuesday, along with a handful of other updates, Apple finally introduced one of its most long-rumored products, AirTags. The idea is really quite simple–you attach an AirTag, which is a small round disc-shaped tracking device, to something you might lose. For example, a set of keys.
Then, in the event you can’t remember where you left them, you can use the Find My app on your iPhone to tell the AirTag to chirp at you using the internal speaker. The app will also direct you to the AirTag using the iPhone’s Ultra-Wideband chip, known as U1.
If, however, you left something further away, the beauty of AirTags is that they use the Find My network so you can still find them. If you accidentally drop your keys while you’re in the grocery store, the AirTag will still send its location back to you by emitting Bluetooth Low-Energy that will ping nearby iPhones which then transmit the location to iCloud.
The whole thing is pretty incredible, but there is a potential problem. Two, actually. Both relate to the idea of creating a product designed entirely for the purpose of being tracked. That’s something that has long gone against Apple’s core value of privacy. In fact, the idea that you can have tracking in a way that protects privacy has been a complicated issue.
The first problem is figuring out how to use a network of iPhones to pass along the location of an AirTag while still protecting privacy. It turns out this was probably the easier of the two problems to solve.
Here’s how Apple explains it:
Your AirTag sends out a secure Bluetooth signal that can be detected by nearby devices in the Find My network. These devices send the location of your AirTag to iCloud–then you can go to the Find My app and see it on a map. The whole process is anonymous and encrypted to protect your privacy. And its efficient, so theres no need to worry about battery life or data usage.
Considering there are 1 billion iPhones in active use, there’s a pretty good chance that at least one will pass by your lost AirTag. That’s a really brilliant solution.
But, what if someone decided to use an AirTag to track a person? That’s an entirely different problem.