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Cyber flashing and/or bullying anonymously with iPhone ‘AirDrop’

Australian online safety experts have warned about a rise in anonymous digital targeting of students and teachers through the iPhone feature ‘Airdrop’.

Curtin University Associate Professor in Internet Studies Tama Leaver said anyone within 20-30 metres of an iPhone could send to, or receive content from, strangers. He said the exploitation of the technology was a far cry from its intended use, which was to provide a quicker and easier way to share files between two Apple devices.

“It is the most effective way to transfer content from one device to another, rather than emailing or plugging it in to a third party machine.”

Once such problem with Airdrop content sharing is known as “cyber flashing”, where explicit and/or abusive images are anonymously sent to strangers through iPhones.

Cyber flashing has become prevalent in schools and in public places (even on public transport), with the iPhone’s AirDrop feature being exploited to share unsolicited pornographic and offensive images. The age of victims being targeted is often unknown – they could be children or adults.

Unsolicited airdropping removes any agency of consent from the person who is on the receiving end. Associate Professor Tama Leaver added, “People don’t know it’s coming and they look at their phone and it’s right there in their face. Sometimes, it involves the sharing of nude photographs, sometimes of the teens themselves”.

In schools, the technology may also be used to bully, intimidate and humiliate students. Inappropriate photos and memes, or photos that have been edited might be used to bully or act inappropriately towards a particular student. The identity of the sender can be hidden with a simple name change on their device.

A former police officer, Paul Litherland, uses his experience from the technology crime unit to educate students on cyber safety.

“What I’m seeing a lot of is a group of 30 kids will be sitting in a classroom and someone will create a meme like ‘I hate you’ or ‘you suck’, and then send that to a student within the class”.

Despite the challenges in identifying the perpetrators, it was worth reporting serious cyber flashing or bullying instances so that the police can become aware of it.

With regards to preventing becoming a target, Apple’s own advice suggests people simply set their AirDrop settings from public to private, allowing only their contacts to share files.

Mr Litherland said the best way for parents to protect their kids from cyber flashing was to talk to them about it, which will go a long way to minimising the impact that such an image might have on them.

If you have encountered AirDrop cyber flashing or bullying at your school we would be interested to hear how it affected you or your students.