Feel like you're being followed? Apple and Google are on the case.

Photo (c) Malte Mueller - Getty Images

Proposed location tracking specs could end secret surveillance

Over the past couple of years, location-tracking devices have found a home with people who want to keep tabs on where their keys are, their purse, their luggage, literally their everything.

Sometimes, those devices depend on crowdsourced finding networks and can wind up being misused for unwanted tracking of individuals, as Apple found out the hard way when people were using the company’s AirTags to stalk people.

Apple and Google aren’t typically two companies you’d see in bed with each other, but when they sense that there’s a planet full of consumers who are being tracked against their will, they’re coming together to do what they can to stop it.

The two companies have jointly submitted a first-of-its-kind proposal to help combat the misuse of Bluetooth location-tracking devices for unwanted tracking. The specification will allow Bluetooth location-tracking devices to be compatible with unauthorized tracking detection and alerts across iOS and Android platforms.

Others who have tracking devices – Samsung, Tile, Chipolo, eufy Security, and Pebblebee – have expressed their support, too. Together, the entire group can put together best practices and instructions for manufacturers, should they choose to build these capabilities into their products.

Covering every aspect possible

It’s evident that a lot of thought has gone into this idea. According to the specs, "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."

It will also have technology that can identify the owner of a tracking device -- for example, an email address or a phone number -- as well as the serial number of the tracking device.

Another neat feature is that trackers will shift from a "near-owner" mode to a "separated" mode should the device no longer be near an owner's paired device for more than 30 minutes.

Now that the proposal has been submitted, interested parties are invited and encouraged to review and comment over the next three months. Following the comment period, Google and Apple will re-huddle to address the feedback the initiative received, then set about to implement what it learned about how unwanted tracking alerts will fit into future versions of Android and iOS. Their goal is to have that done by the end of this year.

Safety groups weigh-in

When Apple and Google initially pow-wowed this initiative, they decided that while getting feedback from manufacturers was vital, input from various safety and advocacy groups was equally important and also needed to be integrated into the development of the specification.

“Today’s release of a draft specification is a welcome step to confront harmful misuses of Bluetooth location trackers,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, the Center for Democracy & Technology’s (CDT) president and CEO. 

“CDT continues to focus on ways to make these devices more detectable and reduce the likelihood that they will be used to track people. We commend Apple and Google for their partnership and dedication to developing a uniform solution to improve detectability. We look forward to the specification moving through the standardization process and to further engagement on ways to reduce the risk of Bluetooth location trackers being misused.”

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