Imagine riding along on the subway when suddenly…a pic pops up on your mobile. It’s not from anyone you know—and it gives you an unsolicited eyeful of someone’s privates.
This phenomenon, known as “cyber-flashing,” is the modern-day version of the creepy naked dude in a trench coat. And it’s carried out via Apple Airdrop.
iPhone and iPad users will be familiar with the technology—it’s a function in iOS that lets two people in nearby proximity send pictures and other content back and forth over the air—a bit like Bluetooth, but optimized for Apple devices, tying in messaging and address books. Users have the option to turn Airdrop on or off, and they can set the privacy level: The phone can be discoverable only to contacts (the default setting), or open to any iOS device within range.
The creepiest part of this is that if you’ve been cyber-flashed, it means that the person doing the flashing is doing so anonymously—and from a close enough distance to watch your reaction.
Further, Airdrop shows a thumbnail of the incoming picture and asks if you want to accept it. So even if you don't actively accept the image, you are still subjected to viewing it.
London police are investigating one case where a victim received two pictures of an unknown man's penis via Airdrop while on the Tube.
"I had Airdrop switched on because I had been using it previously to send photos to another iPhone user—and a picture appeared on the screen of a man's penis, which I was quite shocked by,” Lorraine Crighton-Smith told the BBC. "So, I declined the image, instinctively, and another image appeared, at which [point] I realized someone nearby must be sending them, and that concerned me. I felt violated, it was a very unpleasant thing to have forced upon my screen.”
She added, quite rightly, "I was also worried about who else might have been a recipient, it might have been a child, someone more vulnerable than me.”
Superintendent Gill Murray of the British Transport Police (BTP) said that while the force was investigating the incident, there was little to go on because Crighton-Smith didn’t accept the image.
Still, they were on it, she assured the public.
"Receiving an indecent image from someone you don't know must be very distressing and something we would take very seriously. If it happens to you, our advice would be to remain calm, retain the image and report the matter to police as soon as possible," Murray said. "We have a dedicated Cyber Crime Unit who can analyze mobile phones and track data transfers back to suspects' devices. By linking this to physical evidence, such as CCTV footage or witness statements, we can catch offenders and bring them to justice through the courts."
And obviously, turn off Airdrop when you're not using it.