Apple’s file-share service AirDrop launched in 2011 and allows users to share files, including pictures and videos, between Macs, iPhones and iPads using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
Unless your AirDrop settings are on “private” you can receive and see – without your consent – images sent by random, anonymous strangers.
Cyber flashing – when someone sends a pornographic image via AirDrop – is “old-school flashing but in a digital form”, says cyber expert and Curtin University professor Tama Leaver.
Ursula didn’t realise her AirDrop settings were open.
“We’ve never been told to turn [AirDrop] off or anything,” she said.
Students in Ursula’s year level, she says, often AirDrop photos to each other, but she never received explicit photos before the museum incident.
Her mother, Sonya, said it was common for kids to receive “this kind of stuff” from people they don’t know.
“I don’t know whether the teachers realise that’s happening. Certainly, as a parent, you just can’t keep abreast of what they’re using.”
Braemar College principal Russell Deer said AirDrop was a great classroom tool when used “for what it was meant to be used for”, such as sharing pictures of science experiments.
“The technology is wonderful and can be used in really cool and engaging ways for children,” Mr Deer said.
“But there is a side to it that is often exploited, as obviously this has been exploited.”
A Victoria Police spokeswoman said the electronic transfer of explicit images through text message or social media and AirDropping are covered under the same charge.
Perpetrators in Victoria could face a number of charges including sexually motivated stalking, sexual activity directed at another person or pornography-related offences. It could also lead to fines, being placed on the sex offences registry or even jail time.
“Police take this issue very seriously,” the spokeswoman said.
A Department of Education spokeswoman said they had not received any reports of cyber flashing in schools.
“The department ensures all schools, parents and students are provided with information on online safety through our Bully Stoppers online tool kit, and the Alannah and Madeline Foundation’s eSmart Schools cyber safety program,” she said.
Mr Deer said he and his fellow teachers talk “openly and actively with our student body about [cyber flashing] and have good conversations with parents”.
“We have to educate our young people that you need to be aware, understand and raise it with an adult if something happens to you.”
But it’s not just students who are experiencing harassment via their phones.
Leecie Munster, 28, was on the train on her way home from work at 4pm in Sydney when she was cyber flashed.
“I was terrified as to who was watching me, and knowing there was a sexual predator within a few metres,” she said.
And it made her feel extremely unsafe.
“I actually called a friend while I was getting off the train and walking to my car so I wasn’t alone,” she said.
Social media strategist Stevie Burton, 28, has been cyber flashed twice in the past three months. The first time she was AirDropped an explicit image, she was out to dinner with friends in a busy restaurant.
The Sydney businesswoman’s AirDrop is always on because she is constantly sharing files with clients.
“Whoever has sent it is only like 20 or 30 metres away from you and they can see your reaction.
“If you are there by yourself and they know what you look like and you don’t know what they look like – who is to say it won’t end up with you being abused later once your friends leave?”
She felt exposed, vulnerable and unsafe, even as an assertive person.
“On the way to my car, I was 100 per cent terrified. What if this person is following me?”
The second time she was cyber flashed was at a packed convention centre.
“There’s no agency for consent with iPhone. Whether you like it or not it’s on your screen,” she said.
In New York, lawmakers are pushing for cyber flashing to be a specific misdemeanour that comes with a $1000 fine or up to a year in jail, as an increase in the occurrence is causing concern.
“Keep your pics in your pants is the message we’re sending,” Republican councillor Joe Borelli told the BBC.
In the UK, petitions are circulating online to make cyber flashing a crime. The BBC reported that cases go unreported because victims don’t feel the incident is serious enough or don’t know where to turn.
An Apple representative said everyone has the power to control who sends them content by changing their AirDrop settings, with information publicly available on its website that explains how to do so.
Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said the government was constantly monitoring emerging technology to ensure laws were up to date.
“There are already a number of offences on both Victorian and Commonwealth statute books that could cover ‘cyber flashing’,” she said.
“The government will continue to monitor advances in technology and take action, where necessary, to ensure that our criminal laws apply as intended.”
How to protect yourself from cyber flashing
You can find information about AirDrop, including how to choose who can send you content here:
Here’s how to restrict AirDrop on your iPhone:
- Go to SETTINGS
- Select GENERAL
- Select AIR DROP
- Select RECEIVING OFF or CONTACTS ONLY
- Make sure EVERYONE is NOT CHECKED
Police encourage anyone who believes they are receiving unsolicited images from nearby mobile phone users to report the matter to their local police station, nearest protective services officer or Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
If you need support, you can contact 1800 Respect national helpline on 1800 737 732, the Women’s Crisis Line on 1800 811 811 or Lifeline on 131 144.
Nicole Precel is a video journalist and reporter at The Age. She is also a documentary maker.