Google’s new ‘Find My’ device network is useful but a stalking risk

Google’s new ‘Find My’ device network is useful but a stalking risk

If you have an Android phone or tablet, Google will email you soon - if it hasn’t already - to say your device will automatically beam its location anonymously to strangers’ compatible gadgets nearby. It’s to help find lost devices.

Apple has been doing this for several years with iPhones, Macs, the Apple Watch and other devices. That’s how its AirTags work - by pinging everyone’s nearby Apple devices to triangulate location.

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Google is letting you opt out of the company’s similar “Find My” network. What should you do?

My advice: Most people should say yes to Google’s location-tracking network.

It will help you more easily locate your Android phone, some Bluetooth headphones or other belongings when they’re misplaced or stolen. You’re helping other people do the same.

There is an exception. If you believe there’s a risk strangers or someone you know could be stalking you, don’t let Google add your devices to this digital narc network. If you don’t say no, your Android devices will be automatically added.

Saying no is not an ironclad safeguard, but it reduces the chances that someone will track your location when you don’t want them to.

(I have instructions at the bottom of this article to turn off this feature for Apple and Android phones.)

The always-on location-tracking networks from Google and Apple highlight the trade-off of many technologies: Features that are useful or innocuous for most people can create dangers for others.

One privacy expert said the stalking risks of Apple’s and Google’s location-emitting networks are so serious that the technologies shouldn’t be permitted.

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What are Apple’s and Google’s ‘Find My’ networks?

For years, Apple and Google have had “Find My” apps and websites that help you locate your phone and delete its contents from afar if it’s lost or stolen. They work for some other devices, too.

Those features typically use multiple signals to approximate your device’s location, including satellite GPS, nearby cellular towers and WiFi connections.

Apple - and Google, as of last month - have gone a step further by adding crowdsourced Bluetooth signals to the mix. The companies lump all of these location-finding technologies into their “Find My” apps.

Unless you turn it off, most iPhones and now Android devices will securely transmit their location to every other compatible gadget within a few dozen feet.

This increases the chance you can identify the whereabouts of a lost or stolen phone even if it’s disconnected from mobile service or WiFi. (Phone thieves might turn off internet connections to avoid detection.)

The Bluetooth location-tracking also helps you pinpoint misplaced items that don’t have internet connections, like wireless headphones or luggage with an AirTag inside.

The Apple and Google Bluetooth signals can be more precise than GPS or cellular location tracking, but they’re less effective in sparsely populated areas where there may not be a bunch of phones nearby. Unlike GPS, this Bluetooth location information can be slow to update.

Do not fully trust “Find My” services. Location information can be wrong.

And because Apple’s and Google’s Bluetooth location-tracking keeps tabs on your fairly precise location, it can be abused.

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Extra risks for vulnerable people

People have found AirTags hidden in their cars being used to track their whereabouts without permission.

There are pop-up warnings on iPhones and Android phones if you’re being tracked by an AirTag that you didn’t set up. The unknown AirTags are supposed to beep, too. Some people have previously found that these safety measures don’t always work.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said Google’s similar location-sharing technology adds to the risks.

There are more than a billion Android devices in use, creating another vast location-tracking dragnet similar to Apple’s.

Cahn worries people in abusive relationships could be coerced into letting a partner constantly track their movements through Android devices. He also imagines someone could plant Android-compatible wireless headphones in a stranger’s bag as a de facto tracking device.

In a statement, Google said it consulted with experts in privacy and domestic violence prevention to mitigate the stalking risks of its technology.

Unlike Apple’s Bluetooth network, Android devices that automatically emit their whereabouts to other devices only do so if you’re in a place like an airport or restaurant with multiple devices close by.

The idea is that if you’re at home, your location isn’t automatically pinging to other devices over Bluetooth.

Apple and Google have also collaborated to make sure both iPhone and Android phones will alert you to unwanted Bluetooth tracking devices, at least for compatible models such as AirTags and Chipolo.

Cahn personally finds the crowdsourced Bluetooth location-monitoring networks useful to pinpoint his own misplaced iPhone and AirPods. But he said Apple’s and Google’s technologies are so dangerous for some vulnerable people that they should be temporarily banned.

The location-tracking networks “can be a matter of life and death for those facing stalking and abuse,” Cahn said. “I wish that convenience for some didn’t come at the cost of safety for so many others.”

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How to turn off these ‘Find My’ networks:

With an iPhone, tap the Settings app and choose your name at the top of the screen to open your Apple ID settings → Find My → Find My iPhone.

Here you can turn off the setting for “Find My iPhone,” which is what allows your device to be located using GPS, cellular signals and WiFi. If you want to be able to locate a misplaced phone or remotely delete the contents of a stolen phone, leave that option on.

You can turn off just the setting for “Find My network.” That is what allows your device to constantly share its location privately over Bluetooth with strangers’ Apple devices nearby.

The downside is you will receive less precise or no location information in some cases if you lose your iPhone.

With an Android phone, open the Settings. (Typically, you swipe down from the top of the screen twice to find the gear icon. Or you can search “Settings” in the Google search bar at the bottom of your screen.)

Then tap Security & privacy → Device finders → Find My Device.

You may see an option for “Find your offline devices.” (I didn’t see this option yet in my Android phone. Google said it’s rolling out this feature gradually.)

If you turn it off, your Android phone won’t transmit its location to nearby compatible devices. The downside is you will receive less precise or no location information in some cases if you lose your phone.

Google automatically sets this feature to transmit your Android device’s location to nearby gadgets only when you’re in a relatively busy location. You can turn it entirely off or make the devices beam your location to other devices in all circumstances.

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