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Apple and Google team up to combat Bluetooth stalking

Apple air tags

Big tech rivals Google and Apple have got together and jointly submitted a proposal for an industry specification designed to curb the use of Bluetooth devices for unwanted tracking.

The basic purpose of Bluetooth location tracking tags is supposed to be that you pop them on your keyring or in your wallet, and if you lose them, instead of flapping about trying to remember where you might have dropped them you can locate them on your phone. However the joint announcement from Apple and Google opens with the acknowledgement that they can also be ‘misused for unwanted tracking of individuals’ – or in other words stalking people by planting trackers on them.

The proposed specification is ultimately designed create some interoperability between the two main mobile operating systems and the wider ecosystem of Bluetooth devices, so that people can be alerted in the event of suspected unwanted tracking, regardless of the manufacturer of the tracker. The idea is Bluetooth location-tracking devices will be recognised by the unauthorized tracking detection and alerts systems on iOS and Android platforms, and flag it up if it looks like there is something tracking you.

The draft proposal states that: “Unwanted tracking detection can both detect and alert individuals that a location tracker separated from the owner’s device is traveling with them, as well as provide means to find and disable the tracker.”

Samsung, Tile, Chipolo, eufy Security, and Pebblebee have apparently expressed support for the draft specification, which provides guideline on how to build the relevant capabilities into their products.

“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.”

Dave Burke, Google’s vice president of Engineering for Android added: “Bluetooth trackers have created tremendous user benefits, but they also bring the potential of unwanted tracking, which requires industrywide action to solve. 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.”

The specification has been submitted as an ‘Internet-Draft’ via the Internet Engineering Task Force. Interested parties are invited to have a look and make their thoughts known in the next three months, after which Apple and Google will release a production implementation of the specification by the end of 2023, which will then be supported in future versions of iOS and Android.

Presumably it’s possible either Google or Apple could have proposed something like this in a more general way unilaterally and used it to say ‘we’re the most concerned with safety” – so it’s nice to see a bit of corporation from two tech rivals on a serious issue.

 

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