A new report from NBC News detailed how Apple’s AirDrop feature has become a popular tool for sexual harassers who want to send unwanted, offensive content to random people, especially on public transport.
In a report published Sunday, NBC News detailed the stories of two New York women who received sexually explicit AirDrop messages from strangers while riding the subway. These included 35-year-old actress and dancer Abigail Mentzer, who told the publication that she was on her way to a doctor’s appointment when she received an AirDrop notification, with the file preview displaying a CD with the words “Songs I’ll choke you out to while wrecking your uterus” written on the disc. This was followed by three more messages that featured sexually explicit photos and similarly offensive text.
“I guess it makes sense in this day and age, to find new, inventive ways to harass people,” Mentzer told NBC News.
In addition to Mentzer, 24-year-old student Oumou Fofana recalled what happened when she was riding the subway home from school and received an AirDrop from a stranger — a photo of a penis and a message that asked her to “send something back like this if you’re not scared.”
“I was disgusted,” Fofana said.
“I felt unsafe. I had to ride 20 more minutes to get home. I sat there wondering if the person was going to follow me when I got off the train.”
As explained on Apple’s support site, AirDrop is a feature that allows users to share their photos, videos, and other forms of media to nearby people who also have Apple devices, provided that both device owners have their Wi-Fi and Bluetooth activated. As further noted by NBC News, users can only send an AirDrop to people who are within a distance of about 30 feet.
By default, iPhone users can only accept AirDrops from people on their contacts list. However, NBC News wrote that many people change their settings to allow anyone to send them AirDrops, given how one of the feature’s main selling points is the ability to exchange content without having to share contact information as well. According to the publication, changing AirDrop settings can be “confusing” to many iPhone owners, and Apple does not warn device owners about the potential risks that could come when changing the AirDrop settings from “contacts only” to “everyone.”
Using AirDrop to anonymously harass people at random is nothing new, as NBC News cited two reports from 2017 that documented how the feature allowed people to engage in “cyber-flashing,” especially on trains and in other crowded spaces. In August of last year, multiple women spoke to the New York Post to recall the times they received unwanted penis photos sent via AirDrop, while the Huffington Post UK wrote around the same time that one of its reporters allegedly received “more than a hundred” sexually-charged photos while on the London Underground.
While it could be difficult to report these “cyber-flashers” in the light of how AirDrop allows them to act in anonymity, law enforcement officials who spoke to NBC News said that it’s important for victims to save offensive AirDrop content in order to assist the police when investigating these cases. British Transport Police spokeswoman Nikki Nagler explained that this allows officers to compare the saved images against the photos stored on a suspect’s phone, though she admitted that there are indeed challenges when it comes to identifying such suspects.
Apart from the aforementioned challenges in identifying suspected harassers, NBC News‘ report also noted that offensive AirDrop messages could also result in psychological and emotional trauma, especially for sexual assault survivors.
Mentzer, who told NBC News that she was “terrified of men” for some time after she was sexually abused as a young teenager, recalled being afraid when she received the unwanted AirDrops on the subway. However, she suggested that there are tools that victims can utilize in order to deal with such experiences — in her case, it was sharing screen captures of the AirDrop on social media that helped her cope with the stressful situation.
“Acknowledge that it’s a scary experience, a real stress. Talk about it with people you trust and find activities that make you feel calm and in control again, like meditating or exercise,” said Mentzer.
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