An AirTag Adventure, Part 2—Receiving an AirTag

Anthony Reimer and I had a lot of fun sending an AirTag across the Atlantic. Now we get to the experience of being on the receiving side.

“AirTag Found Moving With You”

The “Find My” network warns you when an unknown AirTag is moving with you. This is to prevent tracking people without their approval. Since Anthony had registered the AirTag on his account to track its travel, this was a perfect opportunity to test this situation.

I just dropped the AirTag in the front pocket of my backpack and went about my business. This is the backpack I use to transport odds and ends, especially groceries, so it nearly always goes where I go. At first the backpack remained immobile in my house for the afternoon and then overnight. The next morning, we took a trip to the Leiden Farmers’ Market when I got the warning that an AirTag was moving with me.

It is interesting (but makes sense) that the warning didn’t come until I actually started moving with the AirTag. The tag is not really tracking you when it is just sitting around. But once I was on the go (together with the “strange” AirTag) I was warned fairly quickly: after about 2.5 hours. My wife also got the same warning on her iPhone, which should not be surprising, since we were walking together.

The AirTag is supposed to eventually make a sound when it is separated from its owner, but it never got to that phase in our testing, or I did not hear it.

The iPhone showed me a map where my iPhone had detected the “strange” AirTag and offered the option to play a sound on the AirTag to help locate it. Presumably, when someone tracks you without your knowledge, the AirTag would be hidden somewhere nearby and the sound will help you find it.

You can tell your phone to ignore this particular AirTag, presumably after you have checked with your companions who are travelling with you or because you are carrying a borrowed, tagged item.

The app also shows the serial number of the AirTag and the last four digits of the phone number it is registered to. These digits should allow you to identify the owner, when you know them, but maintain their anonymity when you don’t.

You can also get instructions to disable the AirTag. This will show instructions to open it and remove the battery with a simple but effective animation. (AirTags open real easy, given how small they are and how solidly sealed they seem when closed. This is really impressive engineering.)

I can see a possible downside here. The disabling process requires you to actually find the AirTag. If someone manages to hide the AirTag in way that you cannot find or access it physically, you cannot disable it. This might be harder than I imagine, because shielding the AirTag in a way that muffles the sound sufficiently might also shield the Bluetooth transmissions, which prevent the tracking in the first place. More experimentation will be needed here.

Lost Mode

Now that the covert tracking had been tested, Anthony set the AirTag to lost mode on his account. It took a few minutes for that change to propagate through the network. With lost mode enabled, I could call up his contact information (the owner can choose whether to show an email or the phone number) from the AirTag on my phone, just by tapping my phone to the AirTag.

Anthony also tried to play a sound on the AirTag, which was more than 7000km away from him. This did not work. It seems that playing the sound requires a local bluetooth connection to the AirTag. Since you would likely not be able to hear the sound when you are out of bluetooth range, and could use this to ‘terrorize’ someone (intentionally or not) in the middle of the night, I think this a reasonable limitation.

Transferring the AirTag

With all our testing done it was time for Anthony to remove the AirTag from his account, so that I could add it to my account. The interface for that in the Find My application is very straightforward.

He did, however, get an error that the iPhone could not “find” the AirTag. We presume his iPhone tried to connect to the AirTag over local bluetooth to let it “know” it was removed.

After Anthony had removed the device from his account, I tried to set it up on mine. This did not immediately work. Even after waiting for a few hours, my phone would not recognize the AirTag as new.

I then followed the instructions in this support article to reset the AirTag. It’s a bit tedious as you have to remove and replace the battery five times in a row. I figured out you don’t have to actually close the lid five times, just taking out the battery and putting it back in its place is sufficient. (there are magnets in the AirTag that seem to hold the batttery in place) After the reset process, the AirTag appeared immediately for setup on my phone and I could add it to my iCloud account.

Conclusion

Overall, the user experience for both the “Moving with you” and “Lost Mode” workflows are well thought through and kept clear and simple. Apple has good support articles for reference.

Many thanks to the comittee of MacDeployment and their sponsors that provided AirTags to all the speakers. And thanks to Anthony, who was game when I suggested that sending and tracking an AirTag across the Atlantic would be the “most fun” way to get them to me. Hope you found our experiments interesting, as well!

Right now, the AirTag has returned to my backpack. This seems reasonable since it stores my wallet and keys when I leave the house. I also want to test attaching an AirTag to my bike. I believe that bike thieves will quickly catch on to AirTags, so I don’t have high hopes for it to be useful as theft prevention. But an AirTag on the bike should be very useful to find my bike again in one of the typical Dutch bike parking areas among thousands of other bikes.

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