Digital Violence: How Trackers Are Misused for Stalking





By Sonja Peteranderl

Trackers like Apple’s AirTags or Samsung’s SmartTags make it child’s play to track and retrieve items like keys or bags. But they are also used by stalkers, as GDL member Sonja Peteranderl shows in a new documentary.

The little gadgets can be hidden unnoticed in bags, in jacket pockets, on cars, or anywhere else: Bluetooth trackers like Apple’s AirTags or Samsung’s SmartTags are inexpensive, not much bigger than a coin, and allow you to track the location of objects – or people – by smartphone.

Stalkers are also increasingly using the devices to monitor their victims. For their new SWR VOLLBILD documentary on cyberstalking “Tracken, stalken …töten? Psycho-Terror mit Trackern von Apple, Samsung & Co”, German journalists Sonja Peteranderl and Anke Gehrmann meet stalking victims, investigate frightening incidents and come across new, perfidious strategies used by perpetrators. They test the trackers themselves and show how difficult it is to discover that you are being stalked via a tracker.

Three questions to Sonja Peteranderl

Why can trackers be so dangerous?

The only thing stalkers have to do is connect the tracker to their smart phone – and then hide the tracker near their victim. Trackers are very small and can easily be hidden somewhere without the person being tracked noticing – in addition, many people do not know about such trackers yet, so they do not know what to look for.

The devices make it possible to track people remotely via a smartphone without much effort, down to the metre. Stalkers can always see the exact location where a monitored individual is right now – and could ambush them. The Samsung SmartTags’ route can even be displayed for the past few days – giving stalkers very intimate insights into their victims’ movement patterns: where they live, when they go to the gym or to work, or which kindergarten their children go to.

How many stalking cases with trackers are known so far?

Since the trackers didn’t hit the market until 2021, there isn’t much official data on the phenomenon yet. However, in countries such as the US, the UK or Germany, there are increasing incidents of trackers like Apple’s AirTags being misused for stalking – many affected people have documented incidents on social media. In the UK, police records reviewed by Motherboard show that women are being stalked with Apple AirTags across the country.

Counselling centres and women’s shelters in Germany have had cases where stalkers have hidden trackers in cars, for example. They have also sewn them into children’s clothing, hidden a tracker in a hairbrush, or in children’s toys. Those affected, but also police officers, are often not yet sensitised to the problem, do not have the resources to search everything – and even if the police do find a tracker, this is not recorded separately in the statistics in Germany. However, experts and the police are warning that the phenomenon will increase as trackers become more widespread.

How do the companies protect their devices from stalking abuse?

Companies like Apple and Samsung are now aware of the risk of abuse and have introduced some anti-stalking features. Apple devices are supposed to automatically send a message to iPhone users when an unknown AirTag is in the vicinity for a few hours. Moreover, an unknown AirTag is supposed to draw attention to itself with a warning sound. Samsung says it wants to ensure the safety of its customers through additional features. For example, the “Unknown Tag Search” function can be used to find out if a SmartTag is nearby.

However, our experiments have shown that the precautions taken by companies are not sufficient in every case. The companies recently announced that they would finally work together to develop an industry standard against unwanted tracking – so that, in the future, iPhones, for example, will hopefully be able to detect the third-party trackers of other brands, such as Samsung. Darmstadt Technical University has already developed “AirGuard” apps for iPhone and smartphone use that are designed to detect various trackers. However, you should never rely on these technical solutions to work flawlessly – especially if you are at high risk.


About the author:

Sonja Peteranderl is an editor at Spiegel Online and co-founder of BuzzingCities Lab, a think tank focusing on digitalisation and security/crime in informal settlements.

Published on June 8, 2023.

Photo Credit: SWR Vollbild

Further Blog Posts

GDPR Cookie Consent with Real Cookie Banner