For those of us who regularly misplace important items like keys and wallets, Bluetooth trackers such as Apple Airtags, MyTag, Orbit and other brands might seem like the perfect solution to your absentmindedness.
Once attached to your frequently-misplaced items, these handy little devices connect to a smartphone app to help you locate them.
But while they can make life easier, they can also pose some safety issues, especially in regards to their button batteries and how manufacturers treat your data.
If you've decided to buy a Bluetooth tracker, either for yourself or perhaps as a Christmas gift, our experts have a few points on safety you should keep in mind.
Be careful of trackers with button batteries
Most Bluetooth trackers are operated by a single button or coin battery, which can become a safety hazard if the battery compartment is not secure and the battery becomes loose and is swallowed by a child.
The nature of the product means that Bluetooth trackers are likely to be attached to keys or are easily accessible in people's bags or wallets, in places where they're enticing or available to babies and toddlers. Some trackers may also be small enough for the entire item to be swallowed.
You can't be complacent about using products that contain button batteries
Far too many children have died or been horrifically injured by swallowing button batteries, and CHOICE has long campaigned for mandatory safety standards for button and coin batteries.
Fortunately the mandatory standard came into effect in Australia in June 2022, so now when you buy a product containing a button battery, it has to meet the standard so it's safer to use around children.
While having the standards in place is very important, it doesn't mean that you can be complacent about using products that contain button batteries. Accidents can happen that might release a button battery from the device, and even storing button batteries in your home can pose a risk if a child can access them.
The products that failed our safety tests
When we test Bluetooth trackers, we also assess their safety, using the mandatory standards (regulations) for button and coin batteries that came into effect in 2022.
Our experts found serious safety failures with these two trackers:
- Orbit Keys: no warning labels for the spare button battery, which is supplied loose in the package.
- Orbit Stick-on: the spare battery is packaged, but lacks the required warning labels.
Several other models had minor safety failures, mainly around missing some of the required warnings, or having warning labels that we consider too small.
And even though they meet the safety standard, some Bluetooth trackers are so small that they could pose a choking hazard if a child were to put one in their mouth. The Orbit Stick-on, Apple AirTag, MyTag Classic and Tile Sticker are all small enough for a child to choke on or swallow.
Data encryption and privacy
Bluetooth trackers can also pose risks to your online safety.
The key issue is what the manufacturers do with your data. Bluetooth trackers literally keep tabs on your location (or rather the location of your tracker), so they hold the key to a lot of information about your day-to-day life.
If this information were to fall into the wrong hands, it could be used for nefarious purposes such as identity theft
If this information were to fall into the wrong hands, it could be used for nefarious purposes such as identity theft.
So how can you tell what happens with your data? It can be hard to find out.
Ideally, manufacturers would be transparent about location data encryption and anonymity, so consumers can make informed decisions. Unfortunately, the reality is less clear.
The term 'data encryption' means that the information that a device gathers (the data) is converted into a code in such a way that it is effectively 'locked' – third parties can't read the data, even if they do manage to access it.
If the manufacturer encrypts your tracker's location data, that can protect you if the company is hacked. If the data is unencrypted, a hacker could identify you and your address through this data.
Of all the products we reviewed, only Apple and Nuttag clearly state that they encrypt the tracker's location data.
Bluetooth trackers keep tabs on your location (via the location of your tracker) – for safety, manufacturers should state that they encrypt your data.
Sometimes data can be shared with third parties (such as other websites and services) to improve location tracking. For instance, the app on your smartphone could help to locate other people's trackers, and vice versa.
If the data is not anonymised and kept secure by the manufacturer, that can open you up to data privacy risks.
Again, in an ideal world, manufacturers would clearly state that they do this, and seek your consent.
Most of the products we reviewed stated that they either don't share your data, or ask for your active consent to share your data. But MyTag and Samsung didn't state whether they share this data, and along with Nuttag didn't specify whether they can track your phone's location.
CHOICE backs data privacy regulation
"Bluetooth trackers are another example of the myriad ways that data is being collected about us as we go about our everyday lives," says CHOICE consumer data advocate Kate Bower.
"Unfortunately regulation hasn't been keeping pace with the rampant data collection of digital and internet-connected devices," she says.
But that is changing, with recently introduced laws to increase penalties for serious breaches of the Privacy Act, and a broadscale review of the Act set to deliver a final report by the end of the year.
"CHOICE is pushing for stronger consumer and privacy protections that would protect Australians from data misuse and cybercrime," Bower adds.
Stalking and grooming
Since Bluetooth trackers are very small, they can easily be attached to someone's car, toy, backpack or similar without the person noticing, enabling predators, stalkers or abusers to track their movements.
Similarly, a 'sharing' or multiple-user feature that enables multiple users to track the same device (for instance, to track the same set of car keys) can allow unwanted tracking and stalking.
Bluetooth trackers can easily be attached to someone's car, toy, backpack or similar without the person noticing
Apple's AirTag has features to guard against unwanted traffic, and your iPhone will be notified if an unpaired AirTag is following you, but many trackers can remain undetected.
If you're concerned about your safety or that of your child, you could try an app like Tracker Detect that scans for Bluetooth trackers in the area. For Android users, Apple has released the Tracker Detect app on Google Play Store to scan for nearby AirTags and other devices that work with Apple's "Find My" network.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.