Tile is Taking a New Approach to Combat Theft and Stalking
Nearly one in three women will be victims of stalking in their lifetimes, but until the launch of AirTags, this terrible crime was rarely in the news.
While the recent wave of press on the issue was long overdue, the emphasis on Bluetooth locators is misguided. Well-intentioned but hasty changes made by Apple, us at Tile, and others have left both consumers and stalking victims worse off as a result. In particular, current anti-stalking features have not been effective, and an unintended consequence of these initiatives has been the neutering of the ability of Bluetooth locators to help recover stolen items after a theft.
Today we are launching Tile’s new Anti-Theft Mode and our updated approach to the stalking problem, which will simultaneously do more to protect women’s safety than existing efforts while also bringing back the ability to use Tile devices to protect items from theft.
Note: This post is long because there’s a lot to unpack. If you’re just looking for the key takeaways, feel free to jump to the summary at the end (but trust me, the long-form is important on this one.)
AirTag’s Attempts to Prevent Stalking Are Unintentionally Helping Thieves
Let’s pretend you are Lyndsey, and you love biking — to work, on the weekends, to happy hour, you name it. You spent a pretty penny on your bike and had the foresight to put an AirTag on it¹, hidden in a bike mount, so you could get it back if it was ever stolen.
One day after grabbing a beer with your friends, you walk outside to find your bike gone. Although upset, you are relieved because you can track it down using the AirTag. You chase it down only to find that the AirTag is on the ground, no bike to be seen.
Now, back to reality. What happened is that the thief who took Lyndsey’s bike got an alert that proactively told her an AirTag was following her location. And, after Apple’s most recent firmware update (December 2022), the thief could even use the precision finding feature to find the exact location — down to the inch — where the tag was hidden.
This feature was designed solely to prevent stalking so that victims of stalkers could identify if an unknown AirTag was following them. So there is no anti-theft feature built into AirTags, and the anti-stalking feature could worsen the already increasing theft issue.
Over the following pages, we’ll share Tile’s new solution, which we believe simultaneously solves both problems.
Our Response to Anti-Stalking and the Introduction of Anti-Theft Mode
When news coverage on the stalking risks of using Bluetooth trackers exploded, Tile immediately jumped into action to build protections for consumers, even those who are not our customers. We initially followed a similar path to Apple, creating Scan and Secure, a Bluetooth device scanner that anyone can use that is similar to Apple’s Tracker Detect app.
Over the last year, and after significant research, including discussions with the advocacy organizations that understand how victims are being stalked, we’ve concluded that aside from not doing much to deter stalkers, we unwittingly undermined a primary reason people were buying our devices: to protect against theft.
Today, we are launching an improved solution to both issues that empowers our users with choice.
All Tile customers now have the option to make their devices invisible to Scan and Secure, meaning thieves will not be able to misuse our stalking prevention features to locate and disable a Tile device after stealing your valuables.
Anti-Theft Mode is an opt-in feature because users must agree to extremely stringent requirements to enable it. Users must:
- Verify their real identity with a government-issued ID
- Allow us to partner and share this information with law enforcement (even without a subpoena if stalking is suspected)
- Agree to pay a $1 million penalty if they are convicted in a court of law to have used Tile in a criminal manner
If you are part of the 99.99% of our customers who follow the law, there is nothing to worry about. If you’re a criminal, we’ll do our best to make sure you feel the full weight of the law and face serious financial consequences if you misuse our products. Because the amount of stalking incidents reported to have used Tile are so low, we not only have the tools but also the corporate bandwidth to execute this in full force.
A Deeper Look at the Stalking Problem
As part of this new initiative, we spent a lot of time investigating how stalkers use technology to harass their victims. We have concluded that although well-intentioned, our own Scan and Secure program and Apple’s stalking prevention features put the onus on the victim and do little to deter stalking in the first place. This process has led to our new perspective on the stalking problem as a whole, including how the press, regulators, and law enforcement can do their part to improve safety.
Let’s start by looking at some actual stats:
- Nearly one in three women will be victims of stalking in their lifetime
- The vast majority of victims are stalked by people they know
- 78% of stalkers use multiple tactics to pursue their victims
- Two-thirds of stalkers pursue their victims daily or at least once per week
- Fewer than one-third of states classify stalking as a felony in all circumstances
- Most stalkers already know where their victims live
These stats are sobering as it means nearly all of us know someone who has been a victim of this crime. But AirTag and Tile devices are an almost immeasurably small part of the problem. The story we’ve been told that a random stranger will slip a Bluetooth tracker into a woman’s purse and follow them home is an extreme outlier. While we will do our best to ensure that even these outliers face punishment, we should acknowledge that there are likely exponentially more victims of stalking than there are Bluetooth locators that have ever been sold.
Furthermore, devices that include real-time GPS functionality (which gives down to the second location, unlike AirTags or Tile) are blatantly marketed for stealth tracking, and have yet to be highlighted as part of the problem. Most states have shockingly modest consequences for stalking, but regulators and politicians are not actively using their clout to change these laws. Instead, they are focusing on what is actually a very small part of a very big problem.
To make an analogy, imagine if the attention around firearm violence was focused on minor injuries caused by BB guns instead of handguns and assault rifles. That is essentially what is happening here, and we need to do better. By not addressing the safety concerns of true stealth tracking devices and putting all the energy into “solving” mainstream Bluetooth trackers, the industry is jeopardizing women’s safety by giving the real bad actors a hall pass.
While we take our responsibility as the leading cross-platform Bluetooth locator seriously, we think that it is extremely misguided that media coverage and regulatory focus are not aimed at common sense laws, such as stricter penalties for what is an obvious crime and targeted regulation for technologies such as real-time GPS devices which are significantly more likely to be misused (we are not passing the buck — we have a sister company, Jiobit, which manufacturers a real-time GPS tracker, but the tracker can not be used anonymously which means we have very few reports of nefarious use). We strongly encourage the media, large platforms, and regulators to take a step back and reevaluate whether they are reacting to limited one-off examples and not a more significant emerging trend.
Current Bluetooth Anti-Stalking Features Don’t Deter Stalking or Meaningfully Protect Victims
Even if the attention on stalking appropriately moves away from the Bluetooth locator category, we don’t think it is in anyone’s interest if companies continue to iterate on features that only superficially solve the problems they set out to fix.
After seeing data from our own Scan and Secure feature and running our own tests using AirTags, we have strong evidence which suggests the approach of a) allowing third parties to find others’ locators and b) sending proactive alerts about tags that are potentially being used to track you, won’t meaningfully reduce what are already very rare instances of nefarious use.
Let’s look at some stats:
3rd party scanners
It is not practical to expect people to scan proactively for third-party tags nearby. When we launched Scan and Secure we expected it would be lightly used, but even with modest starting expectations, we have been shocked by just how extreme the lack of use has been. Out of our millions of active Tile users, we see the feature being used on average 52 times a day across our entire iOS and Android user base — this is not a typo!
We also don’t think Apple sees different behavior. For example, Apple’s Tracker Detect app for Android has been installed on an exceedingly small number of Android phones, as shown in the Data.ai chart below.
Regardless of good intentions by both Tile and Apple when Scan and Secure and Tracker Detect were launched, if we are being brutally honest, this strategy has not succeeded. While these features might satiate our critics, they don’t meaningfully protect safety.
Proactive sounds and push notifications
While third-party scanning features simply aren’t effective because they put the onus on the victim, there is some value to offering proactive notifications when a nearby tag appears to be following you. However, even here, we firmly believe that notifications, as they are done today, provide a false sense of security. The challenge with proactive notifications is that to work, they need to be a) timely enough to matter b) noticeable enough to be effective, and c) accurate and infrequent enough that people will pay attention.
The solution which AirTags has pioneered has failed on each of these levels. Anecdotally, the vast majority of people I’ve talked to have received a false alert at some point in time, and they have started to tune these notifications out. I, for example, get ongoing alerts that my wife’s AirPods are following me. If you get too many false alarms, you stop paying attention.
Putting anecdotes aside, we did our own limited internal testing (view results here) to see how quickly AirTags would trigger an alert when following someone who was not their owner, and the results were disappointing. On the latest AirTag software (2.0.36), it took anywhere from 1 hour to 24 hours for participants to receive the first proactive notification, and required them to be walking or driving for a period of time and distance. In addition, there were some instances where a proactive notification did not appear for multiple days and other cases in which multiple notifications were randomly sent to the same individual, including a situation where a significant other received a notification well before the individual being followed did.
The participants in the test did occasionally hear a chirp from the AirTag. This alert is designed to notify individuals audibly of an unknown AirTag following them, but it only measures 60 decibels which is about as loud as a conversation between two people. We found that it can easily be muffled if the AirTag is in a purse, tuned out in situations like driving, or not noticeable in a noisy bar — which is exactly when these notifications are the most critical.
The bottom line is that a good locating device is also a good stalking device. It is almost impossible to fine-tune alerts in a way that balances the need for accuracy with timeliness. Likewise, it is nearly impossible to make notifications or alert sounds noticeable enough in any practical environment — it is often hard to hear an AirTag beep in a silent room let alone a bar or club where a stalker might be present.
Common Sense Solutions We Can All Get Behind
What is the solution if the proactive notification approach doesn’t meaningfully solve the problem? Although stalking using Bluetooth tags is an outlier, we don’t want to shirk our responsibility. As the co-founder and CEO of Life360, Tile’s parent company which provides location sharing for almost 50 million active users and now runs on nearly 15% of iPhones in the US, we take our responsibility as the world’s leading safety app extremely seriously.
I have three simple suggestions that I believe will meaningfully address the broader stalking problem and set a better foundation for the future:
- Require all location-enabled devices that are small enough to be planted on a person — real-time GPS devices in particular — be registered using a real name, thereby removing the ability for these devices to be used anonymously. We’ve proven that requiring ID verification to opt out of anti-stalking features before any new laws isn’t challenging to implement.
- Make stalking a first-time felony offense; as of now, this is not the norm in most states. Bonus points if this can be done at the federal level.
- Ban all devices that are implicitly or explicitly marketed for the stealth tracking of people. These products are sold with almost zero regulation and press scrutiny. This can also be done at a legal and platform level (e.g. Google and Apple can and should pull these apps off their stores).
These changes are largely not technical in nature, but they would have a much more significant impact than notifications or scanning apps that are lightly used, ignored, or ineffective. In addition, research has shown that victims of stalking who are assisted by law enforcement have the greatest success at halting unwanted contact — increasing the odds that stalkers are caught through ID verification and increasing their punishment when they are convicted will likely have much stronger deterrent effects than putting pressure on Bluetooth tracker manufacturers.
Some Thoughts on Apple
Let’s acknowledge the obvious: the newfound attention here is because Apple has entered the space — not because this technology is new. We’ve been offering locator products for years, including real-time GPS devices that are far more effective stalking tools than AirTags, and this never came up as a material issue.
I truly believe Apple is doing their best to balance business needs with the protection of consumers, and they should be commended for it. But there is no easy solution, and the bottom line is that a powerful location-sharing device is almost always a powerful stalking device in the wrong hands. However, the good far outweighs the bad, and progress needs to march forward.
While Tile stands to benefit from Apple’s approach to stalking (it has opened a market opportunity around theft prevention that Tile plans to capitalize on), on a human level, I hope that Apple uses its platform to reorient the world to the bigger problem and away from what are extremely rare outliers. If Apple gets behind common sense laws and regulations, they could be a driver of real change, and that would be doing far more for the millions of women who are victims of this crime each year.
And Apple: perhaps our new launch can make us implicit partners in crime because we can give you some aircover in the press (puns intended). While we certainly aren’t your size, we aren’t exactly small either. We have a finding network with almost 50 million active devices, and we have decided that until there is a better platform-based solution, we will not pursue the proactive notification strategy you pioneered. As a smaller company less susceptible to outside pressures, we are happy to take your place as the category target.
A Conclusion and a Commitment
I’m confident that our new Anti-Theft Mode will improve our product while enhancing women’s safety — the lack of anonymity, stringent penalties, and clearly established cooperation with law enforcement will massively deter misuse. We are committed to safety, and I will conclude this post by committing to make public, to the greatest extent legally possible, all data about any instances of misuse of Tile devices that have been Anti-Theft enabled. Finally, while I am highly confident that the numbers will prove our thesis true, if we find we are wrong, we will reverse course and publicly acknowledge our mistake.
And for now, I welcome all our customers to try Anti-Theft Mode. Tile is now the only cross-platform Bluetooth locator at scale that can make your valuables invisible and protect your items from theft.
For those of you looking for the bullet point version of this post, here are the key takeaways in short(er) form:
- Thieves are now being proactively alerted if they steal an item that has an AirTag on it. They also have the ability to manually check for the presence of tags made by multiple manufacturers, including Tile, which aids them in not getting caught. This undermines why people buy Bluetooth locators in the first place.
- The vast majority of stalkers know their victims and go to great lengths to commit their crimes. Media coverage implying that Bluetooth trackers have been an unprecedented unlock to stalking simply isn’t accurate. While any misuse is wrong and should be aggressively prosecuted, far more nefarious products, in particular real-time GPS devices specifically marketed for discreet tracking of people, are readily available on sites such as Amazon and Walmart and receive very little press or regulatory attention.
- Data shows that Tile and Apple’s anti-stalking features don’t solve the problem because they put the onus on victims, have incredibly low usage, and/or rely on ineffective push notifications. They either require proactive use by consumers, which is not happening, or they rely on notifications that are often too delayed to matter or not prominent and/or loud enough to be noticed.
- To better deter stalking, we need to increase the likelihood that stalkers are caught and then dramatically up the consequences when they are. Today the punishment for stalking is often a slap on the wrist.
- Tile is launching Anti-Theft Mode, which allows you to make your Tile devices invisible from our Scan and Secure scanning feature so you can have confidence that thieves will be far less likely to know a locator is protecting your item.
- We are combatting the stalking problem by requiring users who activate Anti-Theft Mode to submit a government-issued ID to remove anonymity, consent to Tile’s ability to work with law enforcement — even without a subpoena — if a Tile device is suspected of having been used in a crime, and agree to pay a $1 million penalty if they are convicted in a court of law to have used Tile in a criminal manner.
- By sharing hard facts and data that rely on logic instead of appealing to emotions, we can channel this wave of coverage into solutions that help the millions of women who are victims of this crime instead of merely papering over it. We commit to full transparency for all data we collect on the effectiveness of this new approach.
¹AirTag™ is a trademark of Apple Inc.