Stalker’s new weapon. The unsettling use of Apple’s AirTag for harassment
Александр Бородихин
Stalker’s new weapon. The unsettling use of Apple’s AirTag for harassment
23 February 2022, 23:06

Art: Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

Stalking, or persistent pursuit of a victim, has become one of the prominent phenomena that the police in Russia either struggle to combat or are reluctant to engage with—at least until the stalker escalates to violence. The story of Moscow resident Elena Samokhina might become an exception to this rule: after journalists brought attention to her stalker, the head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, took charge of the investigation.

Samokhina’s story also stands out for another reason: her stalker used an Apple AirTag against her and her family—the latest and most accessible tracking technology. Mediazona recounts the nearly two-year ordeal of Samokhina’s harassment and participates in the search, retrieval, and handover of the device to the police.

Down the Rabbit Hole

“Keys!” As a city-dweller readies for the morning commute, a frantic pat-down reveals empty pockets. Keys are nowhere to be found. Alan, the protagonist of an Apple commercial, embarks on a desperate search into the abyss of his living room sofa, plunging headlong into a crevice filled with domestic miscellanea—nuts and coins. Later, his hand emerges from the depths of the sofa clutching the keys. Dangling from the keys is a small metal disc encased in leather. This marked Apple’s unveiling of the AirTag in April last year.

AirTags were introduced in April 2021, designed to track the whereabouts of various objects, from keys to bags, using a smartphone. The operating principle of AirTags is straightforward. All Apple mobile devices with Bluetooth can find each other on a map via the Find My network. With around a billion iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks in use globally, the likelihood of an Apple device owner passing within Bluetooth radius is high. Location data is encrypted and transmitted to Apple and can only be used by the device’s owner.

These compact AirTags have now been incorporated into Apple’s ecosystem of constantly moving gadgets worldwide. They can be easily attached to keys or backpacks, making them easily locatable with an iPhone in hand, which would guide the search.

Apple’s AirTag ad featuring a clerk named Alan alluded to “Alice in Wonderland”, albeit Alan’s journey through the sofa rabbit hole proved much more mundane and safer than the original. The real story of the trackers, on the other hand, hews closer to Carroll’s work with its plot twists.

“At Apple, we believe privacy is a human right,” the company representative promised during the launch, acknowledging an obvious critique of the new technology. “AirTag is designed to track items, not people.”

To deter perpetrators from planting AirTags on their victims, Apple has added alerts and sound notifications to the system: if a device moves with someone other than its owner, the iPhone will receive notifications, and the AirTag itself will emit loud sounds, albeit these high-pitched recurring melodies are less effective for search purposes.

“Apple’s AirTags are a gift to stalkers,” Wired declared shortly after the device was announced. By winter, news of AirTags being used for covert tracking had turned into a continuous stream. In December, seven women told The New York Times about discovering the tags, and in January, model Brooks Nader warned her followers about a found AirTag. Other stories appeared on BBC and NBC News. In February, the first advert for “silent AirTags” with a disabled speaker surfaced on the handmade goods site Etsy, only to be swiftly removed.

Faced with a wave of condemnation, Apple issued an updated “Personal Safety User Guide” in January and decided to implement new, if limited, restrictions in February. These included warnings against the illegality of stalking upon first connecting the AirTag and hints for finding a foreign AirTag discovered via the Find My network.

“Later this month, Apple will put out an update where users will have to pinky swear not to use the tags in abusive ways,” tweeted surveillance technology critic Chris Gilliard, mocking the move.

Nonetheless, these steps are unlikely to solve the problem: Apple’s early attempts to ensure safety with sound signals and notifications about foreign AirTags only highlighted the convenience of such devices for stalking. When a New York Times journalist experimentally attached AirTag, Tile, and a GPS beacon to her husband, she found out that AirTags were most effective in a populated city and their tracking alerts were hardly distinguishable amid urban noise.

The Hole

Around New Year’s, the iPhone of 56-year-old Irina Samokhina from the Izmailovo district in Moscow started receiving persistent notifications from Apple’s Find My service: “AirTag found moving with you.” At first, she paid them no attention—she simply didn’t know what they meant.

But it wasn’t just notifications—an audible alert began sounding from underneath her Kia Sportage’s chassis. “I’m thinking, ‘What’s this?’ Every day it’s ‘beep-beep-beep’, this locator squeaking,” she said in an interview with Mediazona. “We can’t find [the device]: I’ve already had the car inspected, we washed it, looked everywhere. It beeps near the right rear wheel—you approach, it goes ‘beep-beep’—but it’s tucked away so that we can’t find it, nobody could find it. I don’t want to break anything because of this, let it keep tracking. Why should I be scared? It’s unpleasant, but what can you do?”

She filed a report about the AirTag with the police. An investigator told her that the local precinct should handle the check, but they never called. Samokhina and her husband continued to use the car.

Irina knows perfectly well who hid the tag under her car and why. The main reason she hesitated to take her car to the service center was her hope to involve not just mechanics, but also the police in the search for the tag—to document one of the episodes in the sophisticated campaign to stalk her daughter, Elena.

“He mentioned several times that he would put some sort of tag on my parents’ car—he said it in conversations with his friends. We thought it was more like intimidation, but now it’s real: a message pops up on [my mom’s] iPhone,” explains 30-year-old Elena Samokhina.

On the screenshots of her Telegram chat, the AirTag’s owner can be seen as tracking the movements of her mother’s “ride”, while being 78 kilometers away from it. This distance matches exactly the distance from the AirTag to the center of the small town of Kirzhach in Vladimir region near Moscow, where Elena’s stalker now lives—her ex-boyfriend, Ivan Matveev.

A Tea Party

Elena and Ivan met at Muay Thai lessons in Moscow in 2013—the guy from a small town in Vladimir region was studying at a sports university, while the Muscovite from Izmailovo was finishing law school. The young people preferred the growing field of internet marketing to their study fields and soon launched an advertising agency.

“They lived with us in the same apartment for six years,” recalls Irina. “I didn’t take any money from him, I fed and provided for him. They started making a decent income together, they became quite successful, but still: children are children.” In 2019, she says, Ivan “became all about money” and started paying less and less attention to everything else.

Things were going well in business, but the relationship eventually fell apart. “Lena didn’t talk about relationship problems—or she talked about it very generally, using the phrase ‘We had a fight,’” recalls a close friend, Svetlana. “When the quarantine started in spring 2020, it became clear that their relationship was far from good.”

“My daughter said, ‘I’m tired of you, go back to your Kirzhach,’” Irina recounts the end of the conflict. Ivan refused to acknowledge the breakup for a while, but eventually moved out.

“For the first few months, he behaved normally, meaning he tried to maintain some sort of friendly communication,” Elena says. “We had a joint business, we tried to keep it going. Then from his side constant calls to me: ‘Where are you? Who are you with?’. I tell him: we broke up, leave me alone—the insults begin. Then spam calls: first he calls himself, and when I stop picking up the phone, he sets up spam, and I get about a hundred calls per minute from different numbers, hidden numbers, from different states, messages pouring in from different services, my phone is exploding.”

When Elena decided to leave the joint business, the insults were followed by threats — from “I’ll wait for you, I’ll track you down, I’ll cut you” to “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill anyone you start dating.”

In their conversations, both Elena and her friend Svetlana list numerous instances of Ivan showing up at Elena’s apartment and places where she went.

“One time we were at Lena’s home, drinking tea,” the friend describes one such incident. “He showed up and started jiggling the door handle. We immediately called the police because he was yelling that he came with a shotgun and would shoot at the windows. Despite the fact that they responded to our call quickly, they took about 30 minutes to get there. I guess he saw the patrol car on the street and ran away—when they arrived, nobody was there. And since he didn’t do any harm, the police reacted like, ‘It’s good that nothing happened, but we can’t pursue him because he didn’t do anything.’”

For the upcoming New Year’s, Elena invited guests to her home. Soon, the guests began receiving threatening calls — allegedly Ivan was coming and would start shooting at the windows, says Svetlana: “Naturally, the holiday was spoiled, and instead of celebrating, we were watching every rustle of a twig outside the window, every step in the stairwell.”

Art: Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

The Relentless Pursuit

For almost two years now, Elena’s ordeal of being relentlessly stalked and harassed continues unabated. During this time, she has moved to a new apartment, resided with a relative in another city, and was involuntarily accompanied by her ex-boyfriend on two vacations. Despite multiple requests for legal intervention, she has been repeatedly denied, which only further fueled her ex-boyfriend’s audacity. As a result, two of her new suitors were ambushed and assaulted by him.

Court decisions pertaining to Ivan Matveev, the alleged stalker, are publicly accessible and are striking in their similarity of circumstances.

“One act of violence involved him throwing a victim to the ground out of jealousy towards his ex-girlfriend, pressing down on the victim’s neck with his forearm, while uttering death threats: ‘I will kill you!’” states the court decision to dismiss the criminal case for the threat of murder.

“Due to personal animosity, because [the victim] is communicating with his ex-girlfriend, he pushed him, knocked him to the ground and struck him three times in the head and left hand. He began strangling him with his forearm, causing him physical pain,” the document reads on imposing an administrative fine for an assault at the Domodedovo airport.

“In the first instance, they reconciled in court,” Elena states, a note of irritation in her voice. “Well, let’s call it like it is; the guy simply chickened out.”

Now, Elena steps outside only with a pepper spray in hand, well aware that her movements are tracked far beyond mere sight. She showed Mediazona the threatening messages she received (“I will haunt you until the end of your days”), pictures of a rifle with a scope (“I’m coming tomorrow to shoot through your windows”), a list of one-ruble transactions to her bank card (with accompanying threats in notifications like, “I’ll be waiting for you, bring anyone you want, I’m sitting in the car with a shotgun outside your house” directly in the Alfa-Bank app), a log of spam calls to her phone, and a map with the geolocation of her mother’s car.

However, these intimidation attempts pale against a message she received, stating “I have all your movements,” accompanied by a screenshot of a file named “Samokhina Highway”—a spreadsheet of Elena’s train travels over the years. Apparently, the Samokhina report was purchased through probiv darknet services offering illegally obtained data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs databases.

When a Mediazona reporter reached out to Ivan Matveev, he dismissively stated he had no interest in speaking to the press since they “keep stirring up” more “wild fantasies,” suggesting Elena was “codependent.” In response to the question about the alleged purchase of data from the darknet, Matveev replied with an air of feigned surprise: “No, I don’t do such things. No, that’s illegal. I don’t commit crimes. I am a law-abiding citizen, this is all nonsense.”

He admits to having past conflicts out of jealousy—a year ago. “Well, it happened, and I was punished under the law. The case is closed, what questions could you have for me?” When faced with the contradiction between his claimed law-abiding stance and the court records available in the Moscow court database, Matveev ends the conversation abruptly.

“Are you an investigator here? Are you a prosecutor?”

“I’m a journalist.”

“Well, that’s it then, I don’t want to talk to journalists. I only talk in the legally established due course with law enforcement representatives.”

The Grin

In the days following Mediazona’s call to Matveev, three events happened which could easily be linked to the journalistic interest in him.

Right after the call on February 9, Matveev locked his personal Instagram and VK accounts. On the afternoon of February 13, Ilya Egorov, a journalist from Redaktsiya, a YouTube channel, who was also covering Elena’s story, received ten simultaneous calls from Mediazona’s editorial phone number. This was the same number we had used to call Matveev, who at the same time liked pictures on Egorov’s personal VK account. The technology to spoof phone numbers is quite common, and the hypothesis of its use to mimic Mediazona’s number aligns with Elena’s past experiences of stalking and spam attacks.

“Thanks, Navalny,” Elena wryly commented on this spoofing event, referring to Alexey Navalny’s call to chemist Konstantin Kudryavtsev, who failed to notice the spoofed number and revealed details of the botched poisoning attempt during his conversation with the politician.

Finally, on Valentine’s Day, February 14, Matveev showed up at Elena’s building. “I went out to the lobby, closed the door, turned around—and saw him standing on the staircase above me,” she recalls. “He approached me and said, ‘Where do you think you’re going?!’ I realized I wouldn’t have time to unlock the door and get back inside. He started cornering me against the door, and as soon as he got really close and reached out his hands, I pulled out my pepper spray from my pocket and sprayed it in his face. He backed off, started coughing, covered his face, I took the opportunity to run back into the apartment and called the police.”

Matveev also filed a report—Elena found out when she called the police to inquire if her ex-boyfriend had been detained. “They said they took him to the hospital, then took his statement and released him,” she says.

Later that day, her mother received messages on iMessage from the account swarog_ivan—the same username Ivan Matveev uses on Instagram. “Well, for what your daughter just did, she’ll definitely pay,” he wrote. “I have retinal burns, I filed a report, let them handle her according to the law. If she wants to resolve it, let her call me. I didn’t lay a finger on her, she just sprayed my face with gas.”

At that point, Matveev was not yet aware that on February 17, Sergey Boyarsky, a State Duma deputy who commented for the Redaktsiya’s report, would send a request to the Investigative Committee. The next day, the head of the department, Alexander Bastrykin, ordered a check to be carried out, to “provide an operational report” on Elena’s stalking case and to “initiate a criminal case if there are grounds.”


On the afternoon of February 20, Elena and her friend finally decided to find the AirTag hidden in her mother’s car. It had been over a week since Mediazona’s call to Matveev, and the tag could have disappeared, but Irina insists that she had still been receiving notifications in recent days. Elena holds a dismantled cardboard box in her hands—it’s wet outside from a snowy rain, and the tag is somewhere under the car’s bottom.

“The owner of this AirTag can see your location,” Irina’s iPhone warns after just a few minutes. We activate the tag’s sound signal through the phone, and a characteristic pulsing sound comes from under the right rear wheel of the Kia Sportage. The daughter lays out the cardboard on the wet asphalt and gets under the rear bumper. Dried mud under the car gets in her eyes as Elena pries underneath with a gloved hand.

Mediazona reporter also attempts to find the tag after her, but in vain: despite the clearly audible sound signal, the tag remains invisible. With a slightly worried voice, Irina jokes: “We have to crack the car open.”

Half an hour later in an Izmailovo car service, she laughs more confidently, explaining the task: “We need to lift the car to remove the tag. I’m being followed... by bandits!” “For your money, we’ll take off the bumper! We’ll even cut off the roof!” the mechanics eagerly get to work.

In less than a minute, the operation is successfully completed without any damage to the car: the mechanic uses two fingers to pull out the AirTag, wrapped in white double-sided tape, from behind the plastic fender on the right rear wheel. “Well done, guys!” Irina Vladimirovna pats the mechanic on the shoulder with a smile. For a while, the AirTag is held aloofly at arm’s length, and then it’s packed into a disposable glove.

Half an hour later, a police squad arrives at the car service—two officers in oversized uniform jackets and a technical expert in civilian clothing. To the surprise of the car service workers, who did not take the discovery seriously, they make a protocol, take Elena’s statement, and question the mechanic who found the tag.

“Didn’t [the mechanic] say what this... thing is called?” another officer asks. The Mediazona reporter has to show her the correct spelling of Apple AirTag on the phone screen—and become the witness in the protocol about voluntary handover of the tracking device.

The tag is packed into an envelope with signatures along the edge, and this chapter of the stalking story comes to an end—on the way home, Elena and her mother joke about what will happen when Ivan notices that the AirTag has moved to the police department. There will be no new messages from him that evening.

Editor: Dmitry Treschanin

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