AirTags prove a contractor illegally trashed unhoused people's stuff

When the city of Portland, Oregon clears homeless encampments, it is required to retain all property recognizable as someone’s belongings, not trash them.

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A creative lawyer in Portland, Oregon used Apple’s AirTags location trackers to catch the city violating state law regarding homeless encampments. With permission, Michael Fuller attached AirTags onto the belongings of residents of the Laurelhurst Park encampment. The move allowed him to watch as residents’ belongings were cleared out and unlawfully thrown into a landfill.

Under Oregon law, the city of Portland is required to retain all property that is “recognizable as belonging to a person and that has apparent use” and store it in a warehouse for 30 days once confiscated, unless the items are unsanitary or have no use. But Fuller, an advocate for the unhoused, had long suspected that a city contractor tasked with clear encampments was knowingly trashing personal property.

Homeless crisis — Cities across the United States have struggled with the homelessness crisis and how to address growing camps. Even in supposedly liberal cities like Portland, officials are forced to take action by angry residents who say the camps are a blight and a public health hazard. Homeless advocates say, though, that the unhoused would simply be pushed somewhere else in town; dismantling camps doesn’t solve the underlying problem and actually might make it worse. Maybe the encampments aren’t the problem, maybe it’s decades of social benefits and safety nets being cut so there’s nothing left to catch people when they fall through society’s cracks.

“I practically begged the city not to move forward with the sweep to make sure property wasn’t being destroyed, and the city ignored me,” Fuller told the Portland Tribune. “Now there’s going to be legal consequences. It completely vindicates what the homeless people have been saying all along.”

Damning evidence — The items that Fuller tracked included a pair of gloves, a speaker, two canvas paintings, and a French press. With the AirTags attached, he was able to use Apple’s Find My network to watch as they made their way to a landfill. Whenever an AirTag comes in close contact with an iPhone connected to the Find My network, its location is reported back to the owner.

Fuller is planning to sue the city on behalf of the family of an unhoused woman who died in 2019. The family alleges her death was directly caused by a sweep one week earlier that had resulted in her medication being trashed. The hope is that Fuller’s evidence will force the city to halt future sweeps and shift its policies regarding the clearing of encampments.

AirTags have been used in other creative ways — a YouTuber tried sending one to Apple’s own CEO Tim Cook, for instance. They’ve also been criticized for potentially allowing stalking, but Apple has tried to prevent abuse through methods like beeping if an AirTag belonging to someone else is following a person around. Tracking devices like AirTags existed before, like Tile, but Apple’s Find My network is much larger on account of how many people have Apple devices, making the AirTags immediately more useful.