The search warrant revealed how the DEA used AirTag in an investigation, the first federal agency known to have done so.
In May 2022, border guards seized two packages from Shanghai, China. Inside one was a tablet press, a machine used to press materials into tablets, and the other contained several tablet dyes.
They thought they were being referred to an illegal drug manufacturer, so they contacted the Drug Enforcement Administration. Investigators examined the packages and decided to hide the AirTag inside the tablet press to track its movement, rather than cancel the shipment or visit the manufacturer.
Found in a search warrant obtained by Forbes, this may be the first known instance of a federal agency using an Apple location-tracking device. However, the DEA did not say why it chose to use a consumer device rather than a professional GPS tracker.
In the search warrant, the agent said, “Accurate location information [pill press] will allow investigators to obtain evidence of where such individuals are storing drugs and/or drug proceeds, where they are obtaining controlled substances, and where else they are distributing them.”
One hypothesis is the unreliability of the GPS devices currently available to law enforcement. Brady Wilkins, a recently retired detective with the Arizona attorney general’s office, said the tools “sometimes worked, sometimes they didn’t.”
Perhaps the DEA was testing AirTag for reliability and the possibility of easier concealment. But the agency is at risk if they continue to use the devices, as Apple has added anti-tracking measures to AirTag in response to cases of harassment.
The iPhone can alert users if it detects an AirTag is moving with them, and the devices will start beeping if the original owner hasn’t been around in a while.
“AirTags and competing products continue to be of concern because of how easily they are abused and the potential significant consequences of those abuses,” said Jerome Greco, Senior Associate at the Legal Aid Society. “The DEA investigation is yet another expansion of the use of AirTags for purposes that Apple presumably did not intend.”
How effectively AirTag helped the DEA in its investigation is unknown. But the state charged the intended recipient of the tablet press.
AirTag was recently used to track former Love Island star Montana Brown and helped police track down a car thief in Chicago in a separate incident.