The clever cryptography behind Apple’s “Find My” feature

You can track down your stolen MacBook, but no one else can—not even Apple.

The 2018 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.

Enlarge / The 2018 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. (credit: Samuel Axon)

When Apple executive Craig Federighi described a new location-tracking feature for Apple devices at the company's Worldwide Developer Conference keynote on Monday, it sounded—to the sufficiently paranoid, at least—like both a physical security innovation and a potential privacy disaster. But while security experts immediately wondered whether Find My would also offer a new opportunity to track unwitting users, Apple says it built the feature on a unique encryption system carefully designed to prevent exactly that sort of tracking—even by Apple itself.

In upcoming versions of iOS and macOS, the new Find My feature will broadcast Bluetooth signals from Apple devices even when they're offline, allowing nearby Apple devices to relay their location to the cloud. That should help you locate your stolen laptop even when it's sleeping in a thief's bag. And it turns out that Apple's elaborate encryption scheme is also designed not only to prevent interlopers from identifying or tracking an iDevice from its Bluetooth signal, but also to keep Apple itself from learning device locations, even as it allows you to pinpoint yours.

"Now what’s amazing is that this whole interaction is end-to-end encrypted and anonymous," Federighi said at the WWDC keynote. "It uses just tiny bits of data that piggyback on existing network traffic so there’s no need to worry about your battery life, your data usage, or your privacy."

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