The New York Police Department (NYPD) and New York City’s self-proclaimed computer geek of a mayor are encouraging resident car owners to equip their vehicles with an Apple AirTag. During a press conference Sunday, Mayor Eric Adams announced the distribution of 500 free AirTags to New Yorkers, saying the technology would help reduce the city’s rising number of car thefts.
Adams held the press conference in the 43rd Precinct in the Bronx, where he said there had been 200 cases of grand theft auto. An NYPD official said that in New York City, 966 Hyundais and Kias have been stolen this year so far, already surpassing 2022’s total of 819. The NYPD’s public crime statistics tracker says there have been 4,492 vehicle thefts this year, a 13.3 percent increase over the same period last year and the largest increase among NYC’s seven major crime categories.
Adams, as the city did when he announced lawsuits against Kia and Hyundai on April 7, largely blamed the increase in car thefts on Kia and Hyundai, which he said are “leaders” in stolen car brands.
Hyundais and Kias were the subjects of the Kia Challenge TikTok trend, which encouraged people to jack up said vehicles with just a USB-A cable. The topic has gone far beyond a fad on social media and into a serious concern. Adams, for example, pointed to stolen cars as a gateway to other crimes, such as hit-and-runs. It can also be dangerous; four teenagers in upstate New York died during a joyride in a stolen Kia last year. And some insurers even stopped writing new policies for some Hyundais and Kias. In February, Kia and Hyundai issued updates to make the cars harder to lift.
Convinced that grand theft auto numbers were driving up the city’s overall crime numbers, Adams urged New Yorkers to “join” the fight against auto theft by using an AirTag.
“It’s very simple,” he said of AirTags. “The charging time lasts a long time and you can see in real time where the vehicle is located.”
On TwitterNYPD Chief Jeffrey Maddrey said users who report a stolen vehicle equipped with an AirTag will see police use “drones, our StarChase technology and good old-fashioned police work to safely recover your stolen car,” referring to StarChase GPS – the shooting game. The NYPD announced that they would use to track cars.
“Help us help you, get an AirTag,” he tweeted.
The 21st century demands 21st century policing. AirTags in your car help us recover your vehicle if it is stolen. We will use our drones, our StarChase technology and good old-fashioned police work to safely find your stolen car. Help us help you, get an AirTag. #GSD pic.twitter.com/fTfk8p4lye
— NYPD Chief of Department (@NYPDChiefOfDept) 30 April 2023
Since Sunday’s news conference, the city and the NYPD have also done so shared messages encouraging basic protection against car theft, like locking your car and not leaving your keys or handbrake inside.
The Association for a Better New York (ABNY), a nonprofit organization founded by New York real estate developer Lewis Rudin in the 1970s and responsible for the “I <3 NY campaign," paid for the 500 AirTags. ABNY's board of directors consists of executives from various companies, including Google, Con Edison and the late founder's Rudin Management Company. Apple is not listed among its many member companies.
“We will work with other entities in the city to also provide those types of donations from not only our corporate partners, but those who want to play a role in dealing with the grand theft autos that we see in the city,” Adams said.
AirTags as crime fighters
The massive network of active iPhones gives AirTags an impressive reach for motion tracking that rivals like Tile can’t currently replicate. Other car theft prevention technologies may rely more on third parties or, as in the case of LoJack, work closer to the police, which could rub some people the wrong way (LoJack has also been used maliciously, notably in the creation of the LoJax malware , and has its own security holes).
During Sunday’s press conference, Maddrey said the NYPD would not be able to track the free or other AirTags alone. Instead, the police will use the victim’s phone to try to track their car.
“This is not a centralized tracking system where we have the responsibility to track someone’s car,” Adams said. “If an owner receives a notification that their car is being moved without their permission, they will notify the police department, which will automatically use that information with the owner’s permission to track the stolen vehicle.”
NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell acknowledged Sunday that AirTags are not a new technology, but argued that “innovative” techniques are helping them become “a new means of increasing public safety.”
However, AirTags are imperfect tools for solving the city’s pressing problem. First, AirTags have been used in exactly the way the mayor encouraged (putting them somewhere in a car where they’re hard to spot), but to track advanced cars (the opposite of what the city is going for here) and stalk people. There is a class action lawsuit against Apple over the matter. There was even an NBC New York report claiming that the NYPD found an AirTag hidden under the hood of a police car in Queens.
To combat this, Apple updated AirTags earlier this year so that unknown AirTags are easier to find. Given the bad PR Apple endured around the product, it has been quite public about these updates, which include AirTags that make a loud noise when away from the owner’s phone for a period of time, and iPhones are able to alert users about an unknown AirTag traveling with them. Neither Adams nor the NYPD immediately addressed these restrictions.
AirTags are also only relevant to people with iPhones. They are made by Apple, which means they are very platform specific. Adams was asked during the press conference if AirTags work with Android (they don’t).
“Why would anyone have one [an Android phone]?” Adams replied.
The city did not share plans to push any other technology that may be relevant to users of Android or other non-Apple phones.
Adams has made technology a major focus of his tenure, which begins in 2022. In addition to the aforementioned StarChase GPS tracking technology, the former New York police captain also brought back the use of surveillance robots and announced he would receive his first paycheck for being the mayor of ethereum and bitcoin.