CHICAGO (CBS) — It’s called cyber flashing: the act of sending someone an unwanted sexual picture. Several women told CBS 2 they’ve been targeted through Apple’s AirDrop feature.
CBS 2’s Tim McNicholas has their stories, and Apple’s efforts to fix the problem.
Janet Stoddard was just trying to get to work.
She said she hopped on the Blue Line in late July, looked at her phone, and realized someone was trying to AirDrop her a photo.
So what did she see?
“Body parts,” Stoddard said.
She declined the photo, but her phone showed a preview of the image.
Stoddard didn’t spend too much time examining but she knew right away it was something she didn’t want to see.
“I know for sure that it was, like, at least a rear end,” she said.
It’s a disturbing story, but not a unique one. People across the world have similar stories of receiving lewd images against their will. It’s commonly referred to as “cyber flashing.”
In Stoddard’s case, the sender used Apple’s AirDrop feature, which allows iPhone or iPad users to send photos to other people within 30 feet of them.
Stoddard says, on that July day, she had her AirDrop set to allow anyone to send her a request.
She eventually changed it back to “contacts only” after rejecting more photos from the same sender.
“They kept coming through. I couldn’t even get to the settings on my phone, because they were, like, one after another; and it’s like, stop, stop,” she said.
Public transit riders nationwide have reported similar incidents, likely because trains and buses create a cluster of people in one spot on their phones, which means more targets for the sender.
Shannon Desmond said she was on the Red Line when she was AirDropped a nude photo of a man.
“I didn’t consent to this. I didn’t ask for this. You totally went into my personal space and violated me,” Desmond said.
“This is sexual harassment,” Stoddard said.
But Apple says with their new iOS 13, you no longer see preview images with an AirDrop. As long as you update your phone, and it’s an iPhone 6s or newer, the company says you can decline AirDrops from people don’t know and you’ll never see it.
According to Desmond, it’s a step in the right direction, but both she and Stoddard worry that unknowing users might still accept and get an unwelcome surprise.
“People have to be really mindful of their own stuff, managing all of your own privacy,” Desmond said.
Desmond is urging people to make sure they know their AirDrop settings.
Both women feel that part of the problem is that AirDrops can be sent anonymously, with only the phone’s nickname appearing. Neither was ever able to determine who in their vicinity sent them the photos.
“If they knew they could be identified, I think that would stop them from doing it,” Stoddard said. “But right now, they’re hidden. So that’s why they’re so emboldened to do this.”
With Apple’s new iPhone 11, users can point their phone at another phone and send an AirDrop request to it. This feature will only work if the other phone’s AirDrop settings are not restricted.
The issue has not been limited to trains.
Kat Pitman said she was delayed in Louisville on a plane headed to Midway International Airport earlier this year.
She had her AirDrop set to “everyone” because a business colleague had recently wanted to send her something.
“I was texting my husband to let him know we were delayed,” Pitman said. She said the AirDrop popped up her phone “that had an explicit image.”
“Cyber flashing” is also not just an AirDrop problem.
The dating app Bumble says their users sometimes receive unwanted photos and they have worked with State of Texas on a law against sending the lewd images. A spokesperson for Bumble said they are pushing for a federal law.
In Illinois, a “cyber flasher” could potentially be charged with a misdemeanor under the state’s current obscenity law. There are also laws in Illinois against “electronic harassment” that could apply.