Google's new 'Find My' device network is useful but risky

If you have an Android phone or tablet, Google will email you soon — if it hasn't already — to say that your device will automatically send your location anonymously to the compatible gadgets of nearby strangers. . This is to help find lost devices.

Apple has been doing this for years with the iPhone, Mac, Apple Watch, and more equipment. Its AirTags work similarly – by pinging all nearby Apple devices to triangulate location.

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Google is letting you opt out of “Find My” just like the company network. what should you do?

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

This will help you easily find your Android phone, some Bluetooth headphones or other accessories if they are lost or stolen. You're helping other people do the same.

There is one exception. If you think there's a risk that strangers or someone you know might be following you, don't let Google connect your device to this digital network. If you say no, your Android devices will pair automatically.

Saying no isn't a drastic security measure, but it does make it less likely that someone will track your location when you don't want it.

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

Google and Apple's always-on location-tracking networks highlight the trade-offs of many technologies: Features that are useful or innocuous for most people may pose a threat to others.

A privacy expert said The risk of Apple and Google pursuing location-emitting networks is so severe that the technologies should not be allowed.


What are Apple 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 remotely delete its contents if it's lost or stolen. They work for some other devices too.

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

Apple – and Google, as of last month – are It went one step further by adding crowdsourced Bluetooth signals to the mix. Companies incorporate 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 your location to every other compatible gadget within a few dozen feet.

This increases the chances that you can identify the whereabouts of a lost or stolen phone, even if it is disconnected from mobile service or WiFi. (Phone thieves may turn off the Internet connection to avoid detection.)

Bluetooth location-tracking also helps you identify misplaced items that don't have an Internet connection, like wireless headphones or luggage with an AirTag.

Apple and Google Bluetooth signals may be more accurate than GPS or cellular location tracking, but they are less effective in less populated areas where there aren't a lot of phones nearby. Unlike GPS, it may be slow to update Bluetooth location information.

Do not rely solely on “Find My” services. Location information may be incorrect.

And because Apple and Google's Bluetooth location-tracking keeps track of your fairly precise location, it can be abused.


Additional risks for vulnerable people

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

On iPhone and Android phones, there are pop-up warnings if you're being tracked by an AirTag you haven't set up. Unknown AirTags should also beep. Some people have previously found that these security measures do not always work.

Albert Fox Kahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said Google's similar location-sharing technology increases the risks.

There are over a billion Android devices in use, creating another massive location-tracking dragnet similar to Apple's.

Kahn is concerned that people in abusive relationships may be forced to have their partner constantly monitor their activities through an Android device. He also imagines that someone could place Android-compatible wireless headphones in a stranger's bag as a de facto tracking device.

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

Unlike Apple's Bluetooth network, Android devices that automatically broadcast their whereabouts to other devices do so only when you're in a place like an airport or a restaurant where multiple devices are in close proximity.

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

Apple and Google have also collaborated to ensure that both iPhone and Android phones will alert you to unwanted Bluetooth tracking devices, at least for compatible models like AirTags and Chipolo.

Kahn personally finds crowdsourced Bluetooth location-monitoring networks useful for locating his lost iPhone and AirPods. But he said Apple and Google's technologies are so dangerous to some vulnerable people that they should be temporarily banned.

Location-tracking networks “can be a matter of life and death for people experiencing stalking and abuse,” Kahn said. “I want convenience for a few people not to be at the expense of the safety of many others.”


How to turn off these 'Find My' networks:

With an iPhone, tap the Settings app and select 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 “Find My iPhone” setting, which allows your device to be located using GPS, cellular signal, and WiFi. If you want to locate a lost phone or remotely delete the contents of a stolen phone, keep that option turned on.

You can simply turn off the “Find my network” setting. This is what allows your device to constantly share its location privately over Bluetooth with nearby strangers' Apple devices.

The downside is that if you lose your iPhone you'll get less accurate or no location information in some cases.

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

Then tap Security & Privacy → Device Finder → Find My Device.

You may see an option to “Find your offline devices.” (I haven't seen this option on my Android phone yet. Google said it's rolling out the feature gradually.)

If you turn it off, your Android phone won't broadcast its location to nearby compatible devices. The downside is that in some cases you will get less accurate or no location information if you lose your phone.

Google sets this feature to automatically broadcast your Android device's location to nearby gadgets when you're in a relatively busy location. You can turn it off completely or force the device to reveal your location to other devices under any circumstances.

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