Online safety experts have raised concerns over a new trend of “cyber flashing” that’s emerging in Australia, with an increasing number of people reportedly sending anonymous, unsolicited nudes to strangers via AirDrop. Perpetrators are exploiting the iPhone’s AirDrop feature—which allows users to share files to other Apple devices within a 30-metre radius—to distribute pornographic and offensive content. The practice has become prevalent of late in schools and public places, the ABC reports, often as a way to bully, intimidate, and humiliate individuals.
The process of “cyber flashing” essentially looks like this: an individual will take a piece of pornographic or explicit content and share it with others in the immediate vicinity via AirDrop, usually anonymously. A preview of that content will pop up on selected recipients’ screens before they have the chance to click confirm, meaning they have no say in whether or not they actually see the image—and often don’t even know it’s coming. It’s this lack of consent that constitutes the “flashing” element of the exchange.
"The old guy in a trench coat situation is now being reflected to the online world," says Paul Litherland, a former police officer with the technology crime unit who now educates students on cyber safety. "You could be sitting on a train and someone may identify you on AirDrop… They can send you that image and get that same gratification that a flasher would have got in the 70s and 80s when this sort of technology wasn't around."
It’s a difficult area for police, with many of the shared images involving nude photographs of teens and thereby constituting the distribution of child pornography under Australian law. In that case, the content is illegal for both the sender and the receiver—and if the receiver was to save the image to their phone and take it to the police, they would effectively be admitting that they’re in possession of child porn.
So what can be done? Well, Apple’s own guidelines suggest that users change their AirDrop settings from public to private, meaning only contacts in their phones are able to share files with them. From a perpetrator’s perspective, however, avoiding detection can be as easy as changing the name of their device so that it doesn’t give them away on the AirDrop network. One of the best ways to protect young people from cyber flashing, according to Paul, is to educate them about the dangers.
"Cyber safety is a big topic at school but this AirDropping and the misuse of it, I think teachers are unaware of it at this stage," he told the ABC. "When social media became popular it was pretty easy to find out who the person was pretty quickly and schools could put in punishments. What makes this scary is that it is really anonymous."
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