AirTags are the new go-to tool for cops after spike in car thefts

After a viral TikTok trend spurred tens of thousands of car thefts this summer, cops in Washington, DC, started realizing that it was much easier to recover stolen vehicles that could be tracked with Apple AirTags.

Because of this, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) rolled out a pilot program this week, doling out free tracking devices to residents in DC areas where cops are seeing “the greatest increase in vehicle theft,” according to a press release from the office of DC mayor Muriel Bowser.

Over the next few days, MPD will hand out the tracking devices—both AirTags and Tiles—at distribution events, where officers will help residents hide the devices in their vehicles and pair the devices to their phones. Residents will be able to choose whether they want an AirTag or a Tile, MPD said, and once the device is installed, only the resident will have access to tracking information as the sole owner of the device, but they will be required to share data with police if their vehicle is stolen.

“Our goal is not just to prevent carjackings and motor vehicle thefts, but also to ensure swift law enforcement action when these incidents occur,” Pamela Smith, MPD’s acting chief of police, said in the press release. “These tracking devices allow our officers and detectives to be better positioned to quickly locate stolen vehicles, recover property, and gather vital evidence for investigations.”

At a press conference, Smith declined to say how many tracking devices would be distributed to DC residents, but she noted that more than 1,000 residents signed up for a wheel lock distribution program similarly designed to prevent car thefts. At the same event, Bowser said that “thousands” of residents signed up for a Private Security Camera Incentive Program, receiving a $500 rebate after installing security cameras outside their homes or businesses.

While MPD made it clear that “the device can only be accessed by the owner of the device,” the price of participating in the pilot seems to be a promise to cooperate with law enforcement if a resident’s car is ever stolen.

“Participating in the program means you are pledging to share tracking data if your vehicle is stolen at a future date,” MPD said in an FAQ. That specifically means that residents are agreeing to “log into your account and show the officer where your device is pinging,” should their car get stolen.

This could raise privacy concerns for some residents who might want to better understand how their data could be used by police before participating in the program. A spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit digital rights group, told Ars that “people have every right to opt into this, but they should be fully informed and that means asking questions about the exact terms that apply—for example, what the AirTag and Tile policies are regarding release of user data to law enforcement.”

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