Until her ex-husband put one in her son’s backpack, Naomi Dozier didn’t know what AirTags were.
In March, Dozier was in the process of moving with her three kids when her ex-husband demanded to know where they were staying. She provided the address, thinking it might placate him, but it didn’t—days later, she said, he wrote a declaration to the court stating his grave concern for the kids.
“He knew where we were, and he knew everything about the inside of the house, the outside of the house,” Dozier told me. “He knew exactly where the kids slept.”
That month, while driving her sons—11, 13, and 16 years old—to school, she got a notification on her iPhone that an AirTag was tracking her location. She recalled her oldest son said he got the same notification on his phone. About every 24 hours for several months, she said, she received notifications that an Apple AirTag was moving with her. But she couldn’t find the device anywhere.
Finally, in June, she found it inside one of her sons’ backpacks, in an insulated lunch pocket, taped down in the very bottom with white duct tape to match the lining of the bag.
According to Dozier, her ex admitted before a judge that in late March, he’d placed the AirTag there. Her ex-husband’s attorney declined to comment for this story.
When Dozier told me this story in October, she was looking forward to an upcoming court hearing that would determine whether a temporary restraining order against her ex would remain in place. “That would give me some big cast-iron boundaries around how he behaves,” she said.
Since finding the AirTag, she’d done a lot of research into how the devices work, and how the law protects (or doesn’t protect) victims of stalking and harassment through tracking devices. The police and the district attorney didn’t know what an AirTag was, or how it worked, so she bought one herself to experiment with using it on a consenting friend.
Apple has been under fire for stalking capabilities of its AirTag tracking devices for almost the entirety of the lifetime of the device, and this week, two women brought a lawsuit against Apple, claiming that the devices make it easy for stalkers to track victims. One of the women claims that her ex-boyfriend placed an AirTag in the wheel well of her car to track her. The other’s story is similar to Dozier’s: her estranged husband, she claimed, placed an AirTag in their child’s backpack in order to follow her.
Their stories are just a few of many, mostly women, who have reported stalking and harassment enabled by AirTags.
Cynthia Godsoe, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, told me that the role of technology in family law is becoming more and more prevalent. Where someone used to have to hire a private investigator to follow someone around to build evidence against them in a custody or divorce case, she said, they can now use something like a tracking device—or even just Facebook posts to make a case against their ex.
“I don't think that criminal law, in terms of domestic violence, has ever done a very good job—whether it's stalking through technology or just more traditional abuse—and part of that is because for so many people, their lives are so intertwined,” Godsoe said.
Anecdotally, Godsoe said, sharing things like email passwords or even health insurance records could amount to ways a jilted partner might try to surveil an ex, and use that information in court to gain the upper hand. “It's a real problem. Basically, people just have to be very, very vigilant,” she said. “When you're together with someone for a long time, there's so much overlap, that you really have opened the door to let someone into your life.”
This is compounded by the way the courts tend to view family disputes through a gendered lens, Godsoe said.
“There is lots of gender bias in family law. And I think there is the assumption that men are not as involved, but then women get slammed if they're not perfect,” she said.
According to Godsoe, even before tracking devices, tech has been used against women in court; they’re often advised to shut down their social media, not go on dates and avoid drinking during family law battles.
“I think it's kind of crazy that parenting has become so scrutinized, that it is a way for abusers—or just, even if not abusive, just nasty people—to use [social media] against someone, to really surveil their life,” she said.
In California, where Dozier lives, the law states that “no person or entity in this state shall use an electronic tracking device to determine the location or movement of a person.” But there are aspects of stalking through AirTags that can make it even harder for married people to get recourse; for example, if a tracking device is left in a car that they share, and that car is registered in the abuser’s name, this law doesn’t apply, and it can be nearly impossible to prove in court that the target was being stalked at all.
Dozier sent the district attorney Motherboard’s previous reporting on AirTag stalking crimes, to try to explain the seriousness of the situation. “Judges and officers don't know enough about AirTags... and in criminal law, it's harder to prove [intent] beyond a reasonable doubt on the perpetrators because there's no hard evidence that they are in fact stalking, especially when you've been in a relationship with this person or you share a child with this person,” Dozier said.
And speaking out as a target of stalking—especially in cases of domestic abuse—can put the victim at more risk than before. Dozier explained why she felt it was important to speak on the record about her own experience. “You had asked if I would like to have my name used in your interview and I have decided that I am willing to share my story,” she told me. “If I get nothing out of this, and this judge lifts that restraining order—or, say he doesn't—my name will still be on this as somebody who was part of this and I'm still standing up for every other woman who comes into the same situation and the judge does nothing,” she said.
In April, Motherboard obtained records requests mentioning AirTags from eight of the biggest police departments across the country. The majority of reports came from women; of the 50 that reported finding out they were being tracked through Apple’s AirTag notifications, 25 could identify a man close to them, such as an ex-partner or estranged boyfriend, that they suspected placed the device to follow them.
“It was so muffled behind duct tape, several layers of duct tape that you can't hear it, and it’s not obvious where it can be found.”
Some targets of stalking say that even when their abuser admitted to placing the device on them, it’s difficult to charge them with a crime if their intentions aren’t clear to the judge. A through-line in many of the stories Motherboard heard, both in police records obtained by records requests and victims’ testimonies told to me, is the incompetence and unpreparedness of police in the face of stalking through technological means.
Taylor, who requested to use only their first name for their safety, told me in an email that their soon to be ex-husband admitted to placing an AirTag on their car after dropping off their kids with him. They found it because of the notifications.
”I filed a police report and tried to press charges, but was denied since both our names are on the title of the vehicle,” Taylor said. “I lived in another house separate from him since October and filed for divorce. I also tried to get a restraining order but it too was denied. The law is definitely not on the victim’s side in trying to prevent domestic crimes. It’s really disheartening.”
After launching AirTags in 2021, Apple has been incrementally implementing safety measures, mostly in reaction to user reports of stalking and harassment. An AirTag emits a chime sound when it’s far from its owner; three months after AirTags came out, Apple shortened the window for when the device would chime if it was separated from its owner, from three days to between eight and 24 hours. In late 2021, Apple launched an Android app that notifies users of AirTag following them; previously, Android users would not know if an AirTag was near them unless they could hear the chime from the device itself, which was frequently hidden, outside of a vehicle, or faint. In February 2022, Apple announced more precise tracking of the AirTag for the person being tracked and louder chimes, following a New York Times experiment where a journalist tested the device’s security features.
Adam Dodge, founder of online harassment victim service EndTAB, told me in an email that although the improvements should have come sooner, it’s still promising to see Apple continue to try to strengthen the privacy of the device. “The anti-stalking modifications Apple has made to AirTags—precision finding, louder audio warnings and earlier tracking alerts—does show they are listening to concerns regarding the abusability of their tech,” he said.
The biggest problem, Dodge said, is that the continuous background scanning that iPhones use to detect unwanted AirTags isn't available to the majority of global smartphone owners. “Android users must instead rely on an inferior and impractical safety measure in the form of Apple's Tracker Detect App, which requires them to manually scan for unwanted AirTags,” Dodge said. “The idea that someone would regularly and proactively scan for AirTags isn't realistic and places an unfair safety burden on anyone who doesn't possess an Apple device. From a stalking safety standpoint, the app is light years away from the iOS scanning feature.”
When reached for comment, Apple directed Motherboard to its posts about AirTags and unwanted tracking, what to do if you get an alert that an AirTag is with you, and how to make sure a family member has a unique Apple ID.
Even with all these added privacy upgrades, it’s still not enough, especially when these updates are easily evaded by abusers. Dozier said that the chime coming from the AirTag placed by her ex husband was so faint, it was undetectable for months. “It was just like one [beep] and then it would go away,” she said. “It was so muffled behind duct tape, several layers of duct tape that you can't hear it, and it’s not obvious where it can be found. It’s not obvious, like an alert or an alarm. It's more like, ‘Hi, I'm here.’”
Another woman who contacted Motherboard after our April story (whose name we are withholding for her safety) told me that her estranged husband wrapped an AirTag in a towel to muffle the sound of it pinging, and hid it inside her vehicle. “People who share clouds with spouses are at greater risk because the AirTags don’t alert because it is technically with the owner,” she claimed. “It was my friend's phone that was alerted that we’d been followed by a tag all day.” She said that when she called Apple for help, they told her that people don’t use these for nefarious reasons.
Taylor said that they’re glad Apple notified them of the AirTag following them, but believes that the system doesn’t protect victims of stalking enough. “I wish the laws were more proactive rather than reactive,” Taylor said. “Why do things need to come to violence before any legal action can be taken? He was basically shown he can do what he wants with no repercussions. Thankfully he hasn’t escalated further since but it’s frustrating just the same to invade someone’s privacy and it’s not ‘bad enough’ in the eyes of the law.”
Godsoe noted that once stalking or harassment reaches this stage—where people fear for their safety and reach out to law enforcement or try to take legal action—it has often escalated to a point of serious danger. And these behaviors can start young; one in 12 teenagers have experienced dating or sexual violence.
“The only real way that has ever proven effective to address intimate violence or family violence is education,” Godsoe said. “Starting really young, around consent, about your body, about sex, touching—and that's of course, what most places in America do not teach at all. So that's really sad... There is a higher correlation of children who grew up in families where this happens, that are considerably more likely to be a victim or offender themselves, along those gender lines. It's really an intergenerational problem.”
As the police records showed in Motherboard’s April reporting—and as statistics on domestic violence demonstrate—restraining orders, or orders of protection, can only do so much to prevent an abusive person from following or approaching the holder.
“In a child's mind, you never know what's going on, but I think for as far as having it out in the open, to know that their father would do something like that, to be able to follow their mom? It's scary. It's scary to them to see me scared,” she said. “I need to put on a strong face for them. There's some things you can’t hide from children. And once they're involved in things like family court, it's in their faces all the time. So for him to put his children in this position and say okay, I'm gonna follow your mom, and further these court issues... it's not healthy.”
On November 10, about a week after our most recent phone call, Dozier received a notice of the results of her request for a restraining order against her ex. The letter came from the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, signed by Deputy District Attorney Jessica Stehr. “We are unable to file criminal charges at this time,” Stehr wrote. The remainder of the letter included links to the North County Family Justice Center, as well as a link to San Diego County domestic violence victim resources, and a phone number for obtaining a victim advocate.
“I’m so disappointed,” Dozier said in the following text message. “It’s disheartening to know any one person can stalk you like this and there is no crime in this. This will backfire when someone gets hurt.”