Losing your keys, your wallet – or anything else, really – can be a pain, but there is a wide world of trackers that can help you locate your missing things – with awesome accuracy
04 Jan 2024
6 min. read
Ever had that brief moment of worry when you reach for your phone and don’t immediately find it in your pocket? It’s a familiar sensation for many of us. Your heart might skip a beat as you quickly check your other pockets. Then, almost always, you find it tucked away in its usual spot, like the hidden compartment of your coat. It’s a small reminder of our reliance on these handy devices, isn’t it? In this blog, we’re going to talk about some ways to avoid these daunting moments of sudden anxiety.
Physical trackers are small, circular or square-shaped objects that use simple replaceable batteries to remain charged for a long time. Products like the Apple AirTag, Tile, or Samsung SmartTag are small enough to fit inside your pocket, a secret compartment in your car, or your luggage. Indeed, for travelers going around with luggage on trains and planes, there have been times when they come in really handy to track down missing bags. Or, if you bike around a lot, you can even hide one in a bell so that you feel safe that your bike is where you left it (or follow it if it disappears).
Bluetooth and ultra-wideband (UWB) technology enables these small trackers to work through a secure frequency enabled by the manufacturer, which then uses the network of tag/phone owners to locate it, with the location of the tracker displayed in an app, like Apple’s Find My or Samsung’s SmartThings Find.
One important thing to remember about manufacturer-specific tags, like Apple’s AirTag, is that they’re designed to work exclusively with their own brand’s apps or devices. So, an AirTag wouldn’t be compatible with an Android device, for instance. Also, these trackers rely on a network of similar devices to be located, as they don’t have GPS capabilities. When it comes to GPS trackers, they’re particularly useful for keeping tabs on things that are always on the move and need regular location updates, such as vehicles. These trackers rely on satellite technology to pinpoint their exact location, making them ideal for tracking dynamic objects
The other side of the coin(-sized devices)
Technologies are tools and the very capabilities that make physical trackers so valuable for locating misplaced items make them also vulnerable to misuse. It would, therefore, be remiss of us not to mention the potential risks associated with using trackers.
What if somebody slips a tracking device into your bag or car without your consent? Indeed, there have been numerous cases where people claimed having their whereabouts tracked by stalkers using devices such as AirTags. The concerns have led to calls for improving the safety of Bluetooth-enabled trackers, especially to thwart their misuse for stalking.
In response, Apple and Google have partnered to curb such unwanted tracking, including by rolling out new anti-stalking features for their products and mobile operations systems. For example, you should receive a notification if an AirTag that isn’t yours is moving with you regardless of whether you own an iOS– or Android-powered smartphone.
In addition, the two tech giants are working on a joint proposal for an industry specification to combat safety risks associated with unwanted tracking via Bluetooth tracking devices. There is some hope that the specification, which has also garnered support from manufacturers of other Bluetooth tracking devices, could be finalized and updates become available both for iOS and Android in 2024.
As technologies involve both opportunities and risks, it is prudent to be mindful of the potential risks associated with Bluetooth tracking devices.
Another handy set of tools for locating lost devices are software-based solutions. These can either be preinstalled by the device manufacturer and linked to your account, or they can be third-party applications, often provided by security companies. Among the most popular are those that come already installed on your smartphone, such as Samsung SmartThings Find or Apple’s Find My. These apps aren’t just for finding your phone; they can also help you locate other devices, like your smartwatch, laptop, or tablet.
Setting up these device-finding apps usually starts with creating an account, which links to your device and confirms you’re the owner. The standout feature of these apps is their ability to show your device’s location on a map. Interestingly, this map is often accessible through internet browsers, a feature that some physical trackers also offer. Even if your device is offline, these apps can pinpoint its location. This is possible thanks to a technology similar to what’s used in Apple/Samsung trackers. They leverage a mix of location data sources, including GPS, crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspots, and cell tower locations to provide accurate positioning. Owners can also opt to use third-party apps and trackers. Some anti-malware solutions offer device tracking as part of their premium consumer offering, like using anti-theft features to locate your device through an online portal or inside an app.
Are there any other alternatives?
In the past, cell tower triangulation was the most used method to track a device, using several cell towers to measure the time delay a signal takes to return to the towers from a phone. This delay is then calculated into distance and gives a fairly accurate phone location. However, it is not as accurate as GPS trackers, and it is also less accurate than modern forms of triangulation using a combination of cell towers, Wi-Fi, and other data, especially in rural areas, where there aren’t as many cell towers.
This alternative is rather clumsy, and it is mostly used by cell phone service providers to track cell phones or by law enforcement.
The choice depends on what you want to track
So, what is your best option in case your phone goes missing? First, set up a software tracker on your phone as soon as you start using it. This way, if your phone ever goes missing, you’ll be able to track its location with a good degree of accuracy. Additionally, it’s a smart move to secure your phone with a screen lock – whether that’s facial recognition, a fingerprint scan, or a passcode. This extra layer of security can help prevent unauthorized access to your apps and personal accounts. Second, as soon as your device goes missing, call yourself if there’s a chance you’ll hear your phone ringing or if maybe someone will answer your call. Likewise, try to lock it down remotely by using the tracking app as an additional security measure.
If you’re worried that your phone may be lost for good, it’s important to take some immediate steps:
First, contact your service provider to block your SIM card. This will prevent anyone from using your call and data plan. Next, use the tracker app you’ve set up on your phone to remotely erase all your data. This way, you can protect your personal information from unauthorized access. As for other devices or equipment, use physical trackers. They are best used for luggage, bags, cars…basically, objects that do not have any other capability that would allow them to be tracked and traced. For hikers, GPS trackers also make more sense than relying on their phone’s location.
All in all, the world of trackers is very diverse. Always aim to keep your belongings safe, but remember, if you or your devices ever get lost, you’re now equipped with the knowledge to locate them more precisely.
Before you go: NSA shares advice on how to limit location tracking