Llong waiting times at the security check, canceled flights, lost luggage: Who doesn’t know that. Many passengers are now turning to their own solution, especially for their luggage. They put little trackers on their luggage. In case of doubt, suitcases and the like can be tracked down using an app. Trackers are also often used for keys, purses, bags, bicycles or animals.
Common models are slightly larger than a coin, rectangular or round and usually have an eyelet for fastening. Tile, Chipolo or Samsung (Galaxy Smart Tags) are the best-known providers alongside Apple (Airtags). In principle, the trackers work in a similar way to wireless headphones or smartwatches.
They connect primarily to smartphones or tablets in the area via Bluetooth. “If the tracker and the smartphone are within range of each other, they recognize each other because of the earlier connection,” explains Patrick Bellmer from the “Heise online” specialist portal. Then they can exchange data.
In concrete terms, this means that if you have misplaced a key with a tracker or a wallet, the smartphone can find the item. Assuming he’s nearby.
“Under ideal conditions, Bluetooth offers a range of around 100 meters, in buildings it is usually between 10 and 20 meters, depending on the nature of the walls and ceilings,” says Bellmer. Metal reduces the range, which becomes a problem with reinforced concrete or aluminum cases.
A cheap Bluetooth tracker is often sufficient
If the connection works, you can display the tracker on a map or have it play a beep. One of the two will hopefully lead you to the lost item.
Practical: Conversely, the smartphone can often be found using a tracker. If you press a button on such a tracker, the cell phone beeps. In theory, users can attach a tracker to anything they hold dear, from car keys to a cat’s collar that tends to go on long trips.
An inexpensive device is also sufficient as a simple search aid. According to Patrick Bellmer, there are no major differences in quality in this respect. At most, processing and details such as water resistance are not the same everywhere.
However, Apple and competitors such as Tile or Samsung also use ultra-wideband technology (UWB). In very simplified terms, it is comparable to a radar and is intended to make searching easier, explains Bellmer. The app not only shows the position (e.g. the address), but also instructions for the search direction, for example using arrows.
But what if you lost your wallet along the way and you’re miles away? In order to compensate for the low Bluetooth range, the manufacturers use a trick: They let other smartphones search too. In principle, any device on which the respective app is installed can also locate third-party trackers.
Third-party smartphones help search
The data is then transmitted in encrypted form and finally ends up with the owner of the tracker. The more users have the corresponding app, the higher the probability that their own tracker and the object connected to it will be found. And sometimes it helps to have the app show you the last location of your wallet or key.
The question remains: Can you really locate everything? “The use of Bluetooth trackers to locate objects and animals is legal,” says lawyer Niko Härting. This also applies abroad, at least the lawyer is not aware of any cases to the contrary. The respective airline determines whether the devices can be used on luggage on the plane, for example.
It becomes critical when you want to locate people, such as your own child. For the purposes of the child’s well-being, this is only possible with the consent of all parties involved, including that of the child, Härting clarifies.
You should also pay attention to the data protection information of the tracker provider. “The data may neither be passed on to commercial providers nor end up on Chinese or Russian servers,” says the lawyer.
Stalking by tracker is a serious problem
It becomes really problematic when people use trackers to monitor or spy on acquaintances, ex-partners or strangers. According to Härting, this violates personal rights and disregards data protection.
The manufacturers are also aware of the potential for abuse for stalking & Co. Apple or Tile now warn users on the screen or with a beep if there are other trackers in the area.
If you want to buy one or more trackers, you should consider a few things. Your own smartphone or tablet must support Bluetooth and, if the tracker has it on board, also support UWB radio.
The operating system also plays a role. The app for the Galaxy Smart Tag from Samsung only works on Android devices, Apple’s AirTags absolutely need iOS.
Chipolo or Tile are compatible with both operating systems. Simple Bluetooth trackers are available from 10 to 15 euros. Models that also offer UWB start at 30 euros. The button cells in the trackers last between one and three years, depending on the manufacturer, model and use.
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