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The Bluetooth Trackers Project

Tech abuse clinics have repeatedly encountered incidents of Bluetooth trackers, like AirTags and Tile, being used to track or harm survivors of intimate partner violence.  

 

Right now, an influential engineering task force is conducting important work to change how Bluetooth trackers behave, intending to make them less useful for stalking. However, we believe any anti-stalking features for Bluetooth trackers should directly incorporate input from subject matter experts and reflect survivors lived experience.

We created this site to help make that happen. We provide accessible, and accurate explanations of what the task force is proposing, so subject matter experts from non-engineering domains can give meaningful feedback. We also share anonymized incident reports of Bluetooth tracker stalking, offering sample scenarios to think through while writing the design.

Resources

A brief introduction to the bluetooth trackers, what can be done to prevent stalking, and what you can do to help.

Answers to common questions about the standard and initiative, and a place to submit new questions.

An access-protected repository of Bluetooth-location tracking incidents observed in tech abuse clinics.

Overview

Bluetooth trackers are small, cheap devices that can be used to find lost or stolen items. The most popular types include Apple AirTags, Tile trackers, and Chipolo. Advocates, journalists, and survivors have reported that such trackers have been non-consensually hidden in cars, purses, or other places and used to stalk someone. 

To prevent this, it's helpful if Bluetooth trackers are detectable. That would means that another device, like a smartphone, would be able to connect to all nearby trackers. If the smartphone noticed that a particular Bluetooth tracker was moving with it for an extended period of time, then the smartphone could alert its owner. Then the smartphone and the Bluetooth tracker would "cooperate" to help the person being tracked find and disable the tracker.

 

However, to make this possible, Bluetooth trackers need to behave in a predictable way. For example, Apple AirTags already behave somewhat like this, but not all trackers do! Thus, the Internet Engineer Task Force, an important standards-making body, is working on defining exactly how Bluetooth trackers should behave to help prevent stalking. They have written a specification laying out this design plan, which you can read here.

Unfortunately, the specification is not very accessible to the general public, including other subject matter experts whose input could help make the final specification as useful as possible for survivors. Thus, we've created a Q&A where we explain key points of the specification.
 

  • What are unwanted trackers?
    Trackers are devices that send their exact location information to the owner of the tracker for the purpose of finding lost items. Some common brands include Tile, Apple AirTag, and Chipolo. They are usually very small and can be placed in a purse, pocket, backpack, or car. Unwanted trackers is the term used for trackers that have been placed on someone’s person or property without that person being aware, usually for the purposes of stalking.
  • Are unwanted trackers a significant problem?
    It’s difficult to get numbers on how trackers are misused for stalking, as there’s no centralized reporting. However, there have been many documented reports of trackers being misused for stalking. Among anti-violence programs, organizations like Cornell Tech’s Clinic to End Tech Abuse in New York, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and state programs all have witnessed an increase in trackers being used by abusers.
  • What are the consequences of trackers and stalking?
    Stalking is associated with the highest risk of homicide and physical assault for victims of gender-based violence. 81% of women stalked by an intimate partner were also assaulted by that partner, and 76% of femicide victims were stalked by the perpetrator. Thus the precise location information shared by trackers paired with the lethal consequences of stalking create the potential for a significant and widespread deadly problem.
  • Are all trackers Bluetooth devices? Is this the same as a GPS tracker?
    No! Bluetooth trackers are one type of tracking mechanism. Bluetooth trackers "talk to" nearby devices such as phones and laptops that are in their "network" to find location. For example, Tile devices can talk to other Tile devices and any device with the Tile app installed. The bigger the network, the more accurate the location. Other types of non-bluetooth trackers use other means to find and relay their location. For example, trackers made by a mobile network provider such as Sprint, T-Mobile, or AT&T can connect with any device on their mobile network without Bluetooth. GPS trackers use an Internet connection to communicate with satellites to find their location. This project targets Bluetooth trackers which are often the cheapest, smallest, and most flexible since they don't require an Internet or data connection.
  • What is this draft specification standard?
    A group of engineers, advocates, and researchers have proposed a design standard, called a specification or "spec", that would create a universal blueprint for how Bluetooth trackers behave. This standard creates a baseline design for functionality that would help address very serious stalking concerns, providing proactive alerts to interrupt stalking behaviors. We also hope that this baseline would help deter bad actors from using trackers for stalking.
  • How will the standard help prevent stalking?
    The spec encourages trackers to "announce themselves" to nearby devices in a predictable way. Then, nearby devices would be able detect If a tracker is separated from its owner and consistently showing up nearby. This is an indication that a rogue tracker might be being misused to stalk and track someone. If all Bluetooth manufacturers followed this spec, then smartphone manufacturers and app developers would also able to create tools that proactively alert someone if a nearby tracker appears to be following them. Encouragingly, Apple and Google, who develop the software for iPhones and Androids, have already endorsed and even helped develop the spec.
  • Who drafted this specification? What is IETF?
    This draft was written by four engineers from Google and Apple. However, the draft was developed with input from civil society and advocacy groups, including the Center for Democracy and Technology, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Cornell Tech's Clinic To End Tech Abuse. This draft was submitted to IETF, the Internet Engineering Task Force. IETF is one of the most important and influential standards-making bodies in tech! The standards they propose and adopt help define much of how the Internet runs. By working on this proposal within IETF, anyone from any organization can join the working group or offer input, including you!
  • What impact will this standard have? Will it be binding?
    IETF standards are not legally binding. However, they are often widely adopted, and they can also be used to identify companies that don’t comply with the standard. For example, the https protocol you use when browsing the web is an IETF standard, and websites that don't comply are often marked with a warning. Put another way, the drafting and adoption of the standard represents a commitment by technology platforms to implement anti-stalking design and functionality in a way that works with other technology, as part of best-practices. It’s even possible that this standard could even be used to inform how the sale and marketing of these devices are regulated, though that’s not guaranteed.
  • Will this only work on Apple and Google products?
    The standard will work with any compatible Bluetooth location tracker and can be implemented on all mobile phone operating systems. As the largest shareholders of the mobile phone operating system market, Apple and Google have already committed to implementing this standard on their phones, and Apple AirTags have already implemented this standard. However, it is up to individual device manufacturers and platforms to decide whether to use the standard, which includes manufacturers like Tile and Chipolo.
  • What are the arguments against adopting this standard?
    The standard has received widespread support from both the engineering and advocacy communities. However, critics have argued that anti-stalking features will interfere with the ability to use trackers as anti-theft devices or for well-intentioned monitoring , such as for the safety of children. Others have argued that misuse is beyond the scope of engineering efforts. Bluetooth-trackers were intended for anti-loss, not anti-theft. Moreover, we believe that the safety of people should be prioritized over property, and that safety should be an engineering priority.
Access to the repository of Bluetooth Tracker incidents is restricted.
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