Using Apple’s AirDrop feature to send unsolicited images is not a new travel phenomenon but there’s one reason why this is becoming more common, and it could be really problematic for a variety of players involved.
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Using AirDrop For Unsolicited Images
Apple integrated AirDrop software into iOS used by iPhone and iPad or iPod Touch devices. When enabled, users can tap the share button to share files over Bluetooth and wi-fi. For users of these devices, if AirDrop is turned on, they will have a choice to accept and receive the file from another AirDrop user at which point it may be dropped right into the photo app.
Since the technology was introduced, bad actors have been using the technology to AirDrop files to unsuspecting users with pornographic images. Sometimes there is a preview of the photos or videos being sent and sometimes not. Many of the nefarious characters seem to mark the name of their phone as simply “iPhone” or “Apple iPhone” so it’s generic and could be anyone.
More Airlines Add Free Wifi Messaging
There has been a growing issue of these events taking place onboard airplanes. My wife was pestered (though did not open them) with so many repeated requests that it was difficult to use her phone. On a personal level, it has an invasive feeling as well like someone constantly texting you or tapping your shoulder with something you do not want to see or interact with. She was flying Southwest at the time.
I had this experience aboard a United flight last week, though the requests didn’t come in as fast and furious. I spoke with a pair of flight attendants, one had never experienced it, and the other recounted a story that I will paraphrase here:
I was commuting on Southwest, and a young lady was AirDropping photos to the entire plane. But she was proud of it and stood up telling the plane that they should join her Only Fans account. – United Flight Attendant
While this may have been happening, either as a form of “cyber flashing” before or now as an apparent marketing tool, the scope was limited to those who paid anywhere from $8 to $25/flight, limiting the potential targets. However, Southwest and United both now operate free wifi “messaging” plans for flyers. This month, American Airlines is adding several weeks of free wifi. Hawaiian announced they will add Starlink to its planes for the first time, though it’s not assumed to be free upon launch.
Rather than a few paying customers who may not even connect via phone or iPad (opting to use the internet to work on laptops), now every iPad and iPhone on the entire plane is connected and can receive these illicit files. That introduces many new people to an old problem.
This issue opens up a number of potential legal challenges. Matthew is our resident JD and he may disagree, but from my perspective, this seems to open up a number of parties to very precarious legal situations. Here are a few that come to mind.
Issues For The Sender
One would have to assume that this method of sending unsolicited images would be akin to flashing (in the case that the sender is revealing themselves.) I’m not sure the same statute applies to revealing one’s self in public (public nudity) if the image was printed and handed out, but disseminating such images would likely fall under something similar.
However, a real issue on these aircraft specifically is that children are connected to the network. As many airlines utilize passenger devices as inflight entertainment, many are connecting devices and especially kids. If a sender shows pornographic material to a child, the penalties are much higher than another adult.
One might argue that the recipient has to accept the image, but first, this is not always true. Second, an attorney would argue (and win) that even though they needed to accept the image to receive it, children wouldn’t likely have the sophistication or knowledge to reject it. Additionally, if a person was to approach a child with a pornographic magazine that didn’t reveal what it was on the cover but offered it to the child to open, they would still be guilty. Therefore, the issue and the punishment would be the same.
Issues For The Recipient
Accepting such an image, either of minors or by minors presents potential problems for the recipient even if the transfer is unwanted. Assuming that the images are of an adult and are wanted, others in view of the images could be offended as well. A child in view of the materials could put the recipient in trouble with the law as well.
How much responsibility does United, Southwest, or American Airlines have in a situation like this? If this were to take place at a Starbucks, is the coffee house liable for hosting the transmission? I think the courts would say no. The carriers don’t really have the ability to disable to feature, especially since it can be done over Bluetooth which doesn’t require their networks at all. Further, those networks are run by companies outside of the airline so it’s not really their network.
In the case of similar incidents happening on the London Underground, Transport For London clarified that a digital footprint could trace offenders even in the case where the Apple ID is not clear.
“Forsyth says that offenders may think they can “hide behind modern technology,” but they “leave a digital footprint” when they send these messages. This can result in being “caught, arrested and ending up on the sex offenders register.” So, let that be a warning to anyone thinking of trying this out on AirDrop.” – Mashable
While Android has a similar application, AirDrop in particular is an Apple issue. However, when receiving an unwanted image, if a court case were to result could Apple be compelled to intervene and reveal the sender? If so, could they be compelled to disclose up-to-date information about the current location of that sender?
At this point, it remains unclear. My suspicion is that it’s murky. Apple declined to assist the FBI in decrypting a phone even under the threat of a court order and won, however, I’m not certain whether the same criteria would apply in this instance.
The easiest solution is to disable AirDrop on your iPhone or limit the setting to contacts only. Another solution is to only accept only transfer files you’re expecting to receive.
“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.” Vice
All of those solutions, however, put the onus on the unwitting recipient and instructions to not tap the AirDrop acceptance. That doesn’t adequately punish senders.
I’m not aware if onboard networks can cut off AirDrop features without limiting the rest of the messaging capabilities. I’m certainly not advocating eliminating free wifi messaging onboard either. However, in my experience, my wife’s, and the story told by the FA, this could become a wider issue with more airlines offering free messaging. Offering free messaging opens up nearly the entire plane to receipt of whatever a sender wants to deliver. If the airline isn’t held responsible, Apple won’t turn over details of the sender, and airlines continue to open up free wifi for messaging, it seems only likely that more incidents will occur with unknown or unavailable recourse.
What do you think? Has this happened to you on a plane? Who and how should parties be held responsible?
Settings > General > Airdrop > Receiving off
Not sure why this is a big deal. Turn airdrop off. I never leave it on unless knowingly using it. It’s like leaving your doors unlocked, eventually someone will walk in. Just don’t leave your doors unlocked.
In the case of the flight attendant’s account, half the airplane got it at the same time. Anyone can turn it off (link to directions in post) but many have never had a reason to do so and might not realize that their kid’s iPad also needs to be adjusted individually.
Since airdrop does not require a internet connection, the airlines can’t do anything about this unless they jam the signal. It doesn’t matter that an airline offers free or payed Wifi. Airdrop connects a peer to peer connection where bluetooth is used to initiate the wireless connection. You can airdrop to people while walking down the street
Yes, but it didn’t seem to be such a widespread problem until wifi became free.
Kyle needs a narrative to fit his post. It’s not anything new, he’s just trying to get views by slapping on a catchy title and making stuff up to make it sound like it’s a bigger problem (despite the fact it’s a already been going on for years and has no data/evidence to back those claims.
Reading for comprehension is tough.
It really takes imagination to think up this fantasy scenario. You’ve managed to invent and pontificate on a problem that doesn’t exist and that no airline passenger would even think of. Maybe you’ll next write about choking hazards that weightless passengers might face during space flights.
Airdrop has had serious security vulnerabilities over the years. It’s best left off at all times until needed, then immediately turned off again.
Parents need to take the time to learn how to use apple’s configurator app (Mac OS only) to exert full control over all the settings & apps on kids phones.
AirDrop is very useful when sending pictures or files to other people. All devices in my house only accept AirDrop from the Contacts list. You won’t be able to see my phone if you are not on my contacts list. There is a big advantage in sharing photos via AirDrop vs sending it by message as you get the full size picture vs a condensed version at lower quality. Also, I think you can set up AirDrop to manually accept any files so if coming from someone you don’t know just ignore it.
Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I hadn’t considered this vulnerability. My kids don’t have phones, but we do bring an iPad on flights. It’s annoying that the default setting is to be vulnerable to this.
I get that I need to be an active parent when it comes to my kids devices, but it is tall challenge when you think of all of the devices and platforms that kids have access to these days– Desktops, Laptops, Tablets, Phones, Watches, Game systems, all with various OSs– even our fridge has a tablet built into it- security has to be considered by the device, the OS, and the application. It’s a lot.
I disagree with those who take the “just turn it off” approach to this– it’s people sending porn to children and non-consenting recipients. Even if my device is turned off, the sender is still doing something that shouldn’t be done.
This is literally a NON issue. Just turn off Airdrop for people that aren’t in your contacts list. Problem solved.
I am surprised at the vitriol directed at Kyle. I for one had no idea that this potential danger was even possible, and since reading the article, have adjusted my phone accordingly. Thanks, Kyle!
Being allowed to airdrop porn to whoever is open (not necessarily willing) to recieving it should be the freedom of speech hill that white Republican males should be willing to die on.
Son, I told you to find a job instead of day drinking and going on a political rant on a travel blog for crying out loud. You have made me and your mother look terrible on this website numerous times.
I’m so glad Kyle is here to shed light on such a widespread and serious problem that has surely happened to millions of people worldwide…
It was the first time it had happened to myself or my wife in…400-500 flights since the technology came out, a week apart from each other. It was news to others in my row. It was news to the FA that had flown with United for 20 years, and to the rookie, she had the experience the prior week but that was the first experience and it was plane-wide. Seems like a lot of recent activity that coincides with free wifi, but hey, you’re probably right.
A couple of minor corrections:
1) BOTH Wifi and Bluetooth need to be turned on. It is not a Bluetooth only transfer.
2) Delta also offers free messaging (and has before the other airlines mentioned).
This is not a problem. Nor will it become one. At most, one out of every 5000 flights might have an incident.
But if it was a problem, we could just turn airdrop off. There is no need for more draconian measures.
As an adult, I wouldn’t be terribly offended — I’d just delete the image.
It is actually pretty hard for other people to see what you’re seeing on your phone– unless they pry, which they shouldn’t — so that’s not a good argument. An iphone screen is not as big as a laptop or iPad screen. Also, presumably anyone who suddenly and unexpectedly has such an image on their phone would turn the phone so nobody else could see. At least I would.
Parents should probably watch what their kids do on their phones anyway.
But I can’t really get worked up about that either- I accidentally saw pornography as a child a few times, and I turned out just fine.
We have more pressing problems in the world right now.
Not porn but crash pics causes an AnadoluJet flight to abort takeoff today from Ben Gurion.