I cannot remember controversy over one of Apple’s products like that which it is experiencing from AirTags. Apple is no stranger to controversy, of course — how many “–gate”s have bubbled up over product quality shortcomings, real and exaggerated? — but this is different. It is the first time I can think of where the fundamental function of the product is seen to be causing real harm.
To paraphrase one of the better lines from a mediocre series, Apple has a public relations problem because its product has an actual problem, and its product has an actual problem because the world has a problem. Apple has control over perhaps two of those problem strata; it cannot fix the objectification of women in society. But it should not be releasing products that directly exacerbate those known issues.
You could perhaps make a similar argument about a product like the iPhone: the camera could be used for surreptitious photography, for example. But that is not the sole purpose of the iPhone. It is not like Apple is selling some super tiny camera accessory.
It is also true that this is not specific to AirTags. In addition to the well-known Tile tracker, there are plenty of cheap tiny location beacons on the market, not to mention the ultra-precise GPS trackers available on Amazon and at your local spy and surveillance shop.1
But there is something different when the world’s most valuable company introduces a miniaturized beacon that uses others’ devices as a pinpointing mechanism. I am not sure what it is, but I do not think the specifics matter. I do not think there is much point in getting bogged down in exactly why there is concern about AirTags specifically because the effects are right there: women are finding these things being used to track their location. We can quarrel over specifics and wonder why Tile trackers rarely received this kind of negative press.
But maybe all of this is actually very simple: maybe this just is not something Apple needs to be offering. I know I am a mere observer and that a multi-trillion-dollar — holy shit — company can figure this stuff out but, as a layperson, it really does seem this straightforward. Perhaps there need to be greater protections before Apple could offer these kinds of products once again, but I do not see why it should ever be gambling its reputation on a cheap accessory similar to those already available while providing assistance to terrible people.
There are advantages to the vast Find My network, and perhaps Apple should explore ways to make it more appealing to third-parties. Clearly, Apple thought it could do something different and better here. But I see shades of the live audio chat room in the concerns over AirTags: just because something can be done, that does not necessarily mean it ought to be. In both cases, there are societal-level concerns these products will exacerbate or, at the very least, be an accessory to.
Perhaps the responsible thing is to not launch them at all.
I am not sure how common these are where you live, but there are a couple in Calgary. I get an involuntary neck tilt every time I drive by one of them because it has a big banner outside that reads, simply, Spy Store. Good luck to our local Bonds, Bournes, Hunts, Salts, and Archers. ↥︎