Once upon a time, intensive surveillance was a prerogative of states. After the arrival of the internet, and especially the rise of companies such as Google and Facebook, ISPs (internet service providers) and mobile networks, it became a prerogative shared between the state and private companies – corporations that log everything you do online. Surveillance became a kind of public-private partnership. The companies do much of the work and readily cooperate with security agencies when they come armed with a warrant.
Way back in 2009 the German Green politician Malte Spitz went to court to obtain the data that his mobile phone operator, Deutsche Telekom, held on him and then collaborated with the newspaper Die Zeit to analyse and visualise it. What emerged was a remarkably detailed timeline of his daily life, a timeline that would have been readily available to state authorities if they had come for it with appropriate legal authorisation.
But in internet time 2009 was aeons ago. Now, intensive surveillance is available to anyone. And you don’t have to be a tech wizard to do it. In mid-January this year, Kashmir Hill, a talented American tech reporter, used three bits of everyday consumer electronics – Apple AirTags, Tiles and a GPS tracker – to track her husband’s every move. He agreed to this in principle, but didn’t realise just how many devices she had planted on him. He found only two of the trackers: a Tile he felt in the breast pocket of his coat and an AirTag in his backpack when he was looking for something else. “It is impossible to find a device that makes no noise and gives no warning,” he said when she showed him the ones he missed.
Hill’s report makes for sobering reading. AirTags and Tiles are products sold to help consumers find lost objects. But her experience confirms that these gadgets are also pretty good for tracking people and, being small and unobtrusive, are easy to plant on targets. Of the three Hill used, the GPS tracker was the most intrusive. The manufacturer describes it on Amazon.com as “the ultimate in discreet tracking! Keep track of movement in real time with your very own private eye.” As far as the Hill household was concerned, it certainly delivered on that promise.
If you wanted a case study for how a particular piece of technology can be both used and abused, these tracking devices really fit the bill. On the one hand, there are all kinds of excellent uses for gizmos such as AirTags or Tiles. Many people (including me) use them to keep track of frequently mislaid objects such as house keys. On a less mundane level, a German activist, Lilith Wittmann, had a suspicion that a particular mundane government agency was a front for a spy operation, a hunch that was stoutly denied by all concerned. Reasoning that one way of checking might be to see where post addressed to the agency actually wound up, she sent a parcel with an AirTag in it to the agency and watched through Apple’s Find My system as it was delivered via the Berlin sorting centre to a sorting office in Cologne-Ehrenfeld and then appeared at the federal domestic intelligence agency in Cologne.
On the other hand, there have been examples of people being followed or stalked using AirTags. And bad actors have also found other malign uses for them, for example, tagging valuable personal property (expensive handbags) as well as cars and bikes targeted for theft. Suddenly, AirTags seem less cool than they appeared when they were launched. Which is doubtless why Apple recently announced a number of new measures and forthcoming technical fixes clearly intended to head off what could become a public-relations nightmare if the abuse of AirTags led to the death or injury of a victim of stalking. Let’s hope that these changes make the tech safer.
In the meantime, where did I leave those blasted keys?
What I’ve been reading
The ex factor
Happy Valentine’s Day from Facebook. Here’s a Photo of You and Your Ex is a delicious satire by Emily Kling in McSweeney’s. Read it and then delete your Facebook account.