Who is tracking the tracker?

The Tracker Scanner is a proof of concept that detects all types of bluetooth trackers. The project is used as a means to guide the conversation around the issue of trackers in general.

Bluetooth trackers have been around for almost a decade but recently they have seen a spike in popularity. Relatively new in this market is the Apple AirTag: a tiny, puck-shaped tracker that allows for an extremely precise and real-time insight into the tag's location for just thirty euros per tag.

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© The Incredible Machine

Bluetooth trackers can be used to locate misplaced or stolen items. However, especially with the Apple AirTag, unwanted tracking has become very easy. More and more trackers are showing up in stalking or theft cases, where someone deliberately tagged a person or asset to follow their whereabouts without their knowledge - let alone consent. Unwanted tracking directly impacts someone's right to privacy and safety, and is downright illegal.

This is why tag manufacturers have developed some countermeasures. However, in practice, only a very tech-savvy and particularly paranoid person would be able to detect unwanted trackers using these solutions. And even then, the Tile app can only detect Tile trackers, the Apple Tracker Detect app can only detect AirTags - and neither could report a Samsung Galaxy Smart Tag. It appears that the threshold for using tags for malicious purposes is virtually nonexistent, while the efforts required to warrant yourself safe from unwanted trackers are disproportionately large. 

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© The Incredible Machine

The Tracker Scanner, developed by The Incredible Machine and Responsible Sensing Lab, is a proof of concept of a device that can be used to detect all types of bluetooth trackers. It can easily be used by individuals  at risk of tracking or professional organizations concerned with the privacy of their employees.

The introduction of cheap and easy tracking technology like AirTags and Tiles has unintentionally made stalking easier than ever. Until we find a way to regulate the use of these devices we need easy ways to track the trackers.”

— Sam Smits, project manager, Responsible Sensing Lab

The Tracker Scanner is built with widely available components and runs on open source software. It's a very simple and straightforward solution; it scans for all bluetooth devices around it and then reports the total number of trackers detected. The user can adjust the sensitivity of the sensor to omit other devices in the room. 

The embodiment of the Tracker Scanner comes in two variants to cater for distinct use cases. The wall mounted version is designed to be installed near the entrance of a building to verify the safety of people coming through the building, e.g. city officials entering city hall.

The handheld version is intended to be used by organizations helping individuals-at-risk verify their safety. This could be counselors helping people dealing with a stalker or dangerous ex-partner, but also security personnel responsible for the safety of high profile individuals.

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Wall mounted version
© The Incredible Machine
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Handheld version
© The Incredible Machine

The Tracker Scanner project serves two purposes that is underlined by the chosen aesthetic. First of all, the devices are bold and almost cartoonish in appearance, to emphasize that the devices are just a proof of concept to demonstrate that it is technically possible to detect tags. 

Secondly, this look is a means to guide the conversation around the issue of trackers in general. It is a critical reflection on the fact that these Tracker Scanners seem to be necessary to protect us from 'yet another tool' to invade one's privacy. But do we want these devices to exist in the first place? 

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© The Incredible Machine

This discussion needs to take place, and the problem of unwanted tracking needs to be solved, either by the tag manufacturers or by organizations protecting the safety of people. While the industry has yet to put forward comprehensive measures to prevent abuse, we use Tracker Scanner as an accessible solution to act now. That is why we intend to develop Tracker Scanner as an open source and open hardware project. At the same time, we intend to bring the issue of bluetooth trackers to the attention of more organizations and individuals and henceforth, actively look for input from stakeholders, potentially collaborators and funding partners and learn about their concerns.

Are you interested in collaborating? Get in touch, or track our progress by signing up for the RSL newsletter. Please contact Sam Smits via sam.smits@amsterdam.nl.

The Traceable Objects project is one of the results of our collaboration project together with The Incredible Machine.

The Incredible Machine

Design lab with a focus on emerging technologies

Marcel Schouwenaar

Ontwerper en creatief directeur, The Incredible Machine

Harm van Beek

Ontwerper en creatief directeur, The Incredible Machine

Sam Smits

Project Manager Responsible Sensing Lab