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.
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?