Amid a spike in carjackings, New York City is trying out a novel strategy for tackling theft: Apple Airtags. Mayor Eric Adams and the police department announced that officials would be distributing 500 of the trackers to vehicle owners in the city during a press conference Sunday morning.
The police department in NYC’s 43 precinct, which has been particularly hard-hit by rising car thefts, will be giving out the donated devices. The NYPD is also encouraging city residents to acquire and deploy their own AirTags. The idea is to try to deter would-be-thieves and make it easier for crime victims and law enforcement to track down stolen cars. Adams blamed TikTok’s “Kia Challenge” for the rise in car thefts.
“This simple AirTag, hidden in a car in a location that a person is not aware of, is an excellent tracking device,” Adams said during the briefing. “It’s a really amazing piece of ingenuity… You can hide it anywhere in your car, and you can actually track your car moving.”
It’s true: Apple AirTags do often make excellent tracking devices. The quarter-sized tags are useful for hunting down lost keys and bags, but also pose a well-documented privacy and safety risk for their utility as a stalking aid. When police departments make announcements about AirTags, it’s often to warn people that the devices can be used to enable non-consensual tracking.
In this case, though, the NYPD and Mayor Adams are taking a different approach. Instead of encouraging people to check their vehicles for hidden AirTags, Adams instead wants more people to hide them in their cars. The city police department tweeted out a video hyping up the AirTag technology and dramatizing how the devices could be used in an investigation.
The 21st century calls for 21st century policing. AirTags in your car will help us recover your vehicle if it’s stolen. We’ll use our drones, our StarChase technology & good old fashion police work to safely recover your stolen car. Help us help you, get an AirTag. #GSD pic.twitter.com/fTfk8p4lye
— NYPD Chief of Department (@NYPDChiefOfDept) April 30, 2023
In Adams’ view, the ability to deploy AirTags to keep tabs on people without their knowledge is a feature — not a bug. The mayor joked that he might use an AirTag to keep continual tabs his own child. “I used to tell me son ‘make sure you come straight home after school,’ and I find out he goes to another borough. Now I can track him.”
Notably, the NYPD says it will not have access to any of the tracking data unless a car owner reports their vehicle stolen and opts to willingly share the AirTag info with police. “This is not a centralised tracking system where we are in charge of tracking someone’s car. If an owner gets a notification that their car is moving without their authorization, they would notify the police department, who would automatically use that information with the owner’s permission to track the stolen vehicle,” Adams explained.
Why is NYC doing this?
A recent nationwide uptick in car jackings hasn’t spared NYC. In 2022, more than 10,000 vehicles were reported stolen — up from about 8,000 thefts reported in 2021 and ~7,000 in 2020, according to historic complaint data from the NY Police Department. The average number of reported car thefts in NYC over the past 10 years is about 6,700 annually, far below 2022’s number. Moreover, data from the first three months of 2023 suggests this year’s auto theft rate is on track to exceed last year’s. Between just the start of January and end of March, people filed nearly 3,000 stolen vehicle complaints with the NYPD.
Adams and other city officials blame the increase largely on social media and a security weakness inherent to certain models of Hyundai and Kia cars. “There’s a manufacture’s defect in both those autos,” John Chell, NYPD patrol chief, said during the Sunday briefing. “The TikTok challenge that came out in July of ‘22 is definitely, without a doubt, driving that issue when it comes to some of our youth taking these cars,” he added.
A 2022 TikTok trend known as the “Kia Challenge” has led to a large number of instructional videos circulating on the internet that demonstrate how to easily start some Hyundai and Kia cars using only a screwdriver and USB cord. The “Kia Challenge” phenomenon forced both impacted car manufacturers to roll out software updates and offer free steering wheel locks. Still though, thefts persist.
What could go wrong?
Relying on AirTags to alleviate the problem may not be as straightforward as Adams and the NYPD have made it out to seem. For one, the free AirTags program is only accessible to people with iPhones. Then there’s Apple’s own mechanisms meant to foil such device uses.
Because of reports of AirTag misuse and ongoing safety concerns, Apple has instituted updates meant to make it much harder for AirTags to go undetected when separated from their owners. If an AirTag is out of range of its owner’s iPhone for more than a few hours, the device begins to make a chirping sound. Plus, iPhones will automatically alert users with an onscreen message if an unfamiliar AirTag is moving around with them. There’s also an app to help Android users detect unwanted AirTags as well. In theory, any of these security features could alert car thieves to the presence of an AirTag in a vehicle and let them know that they’re being tracked.
Gizmodo reached out to both the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information and Apple with questions, but did not hear back by time of publication.