The use of Apple’s location-tracking device appears to be the first time a federal law enforcement agency has used an AirTag as a surveillance tool, according to technology industry insiders familiar with the case.
The investigation began in May 2022 when U.S. border security agents intercepted a package from Shanghai, China that they deemed suspicious. One package contained a pill press—a tool for compacting powders into oral tablets—while the other was a shipment of pill dyes. Believing that the package might have been sent to illegal drug manufacturers, the border agents notified the DEA of their discovery, according to a search warrant obtained by Forbes.
After DEA investigators inspected the flagged shipments, they hid an Apple AirTag inside the pill press and then allowed the packages to continue to their intended destination. DEA agents then used location data sent by the Bluetooth-enabled device to track the movements of the pill press to its intended address and after it was delivered.
The DEA did not reveal why it chose to use an Apple AirTag instead of other surveillance technology available to the agency, which has vast federal resources at its disposal to conduct domestic and international illegal narcotics investigations. But in court documents, a federal agent noted that the “precise location information for the [pill press] will allow investigators to obtain evidence about where such individuals store drugs and/or drug proceeds, where they obtain controlled substances, and where else they distribute them,” according to the search warrant obtained by Forbes.
Brady Wilkins, a recently retired detective with the attorney general’s office in Arizona, told Forbes that the DEA may have been testing the AirTag due to previous failures in other types of tracking technology currently available to law enforcement agencies, including GPS devices, which “sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t.”
An AirTag “can be hidden easier and is less likely to be found by suspects,” Wilkins told Forbes. “Suspects are getting better at countersurveillance techniques,” he added, noting that subjects have discovered GPS trackers larger than Apple AirTags used in previous investigations. AirTags also appear to have more reliable connectivity than other tracking devices.
Apple debuted the AirTag in April 2021, marketing the quarter-sized location tracker as a way for consumers to find lost bags, devices or other personal property. The affordable technology, which can be purchased online for less than $30, has resulted in many consumers sharing success stories of found items or the ability to track property including luggage as they travel to their destinations. But the devices have also been used for other, sometimes criminal purposes, including by stalkers who have surreptitiously placed an AirTag with their victim’s personal belongings, enabling the target’s movements to be tracked from afar.
After news of unintended uses of AirTags made news, Apple added measures to help prevent their clandestine use. The tech giant released an update for iPhones that allow them to notify the user if an unknown AirTag is detected on their person. AirTags also sound an alert when they are not in the proximity of their owner for an extended period of time.
The measures taken by Apple to make AirTags difficult to use secretly make them an unlikely surveillance tool for law enforcement agencies eager to remain undetected while conducting investigations. But Jerome Greco, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said that if a surveillance or investigative tactic is technologically feasible, “we should always assume that the police are going to take advantage of it.”
“AirTags and competing products continue to raise concern because of the ease of their ability to be abused and the potential significant consequences of those abuses,” Greco told Forbes. “The DEA investigation is another extension of AirTags being used for purposes that were presumably unintended by Apple.”
It is not clear how valuable the AirTag was to the DEA’s investigation. The search warrant allowed the agency to track the package containing the pill press for 45 days throughout the District of Massachusetts, the intended destination of the package, and through any other state in the U.S. Court records show that the recipient of the package was not charged with any crime in federal court. The Department of Justice confirmed to Forbes that the suspect has been charged in state court.
The DEA and Apple did not respond to requests for more information about the investigation.