Cyber flashing: iPhone feature could leave you vulnerable to explicit images

Posted at 4:46 PM, Sep 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-28 16:46:00-04

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - The ease and convenience of using your device’s wireless connectivity can leave you exposed to unwanted activity on your smartphone. 

If you own an iPhone or your kids use one imagine this: You're in a public space and a lewd image appears on your phone and you have no idea where it came from, or even who sent it to you.

There is one setting on your iPhone that could leave you and your children vulnerable to "Cyber Flashing." This kind of flashing has been happening a lot in places like New York City and London.

It's the 21st century version of the old open raincoat and you get "flashed."  Only now, you have virtually no idea who that Cyber Flasher is and if they could be right next to you using an iPhone feature called AirDrop.

AirDrop is Apple's file sharing system, which is supposed to make it easier for all of us to instantly swap photos, documents... almost anything with trusted family or friends.

"There are bad people out there who will take advantage of this," said our FOX19Now Tech Expert Dave Hatter.

It happens when you least expect it. On a crowded Metro bus, on a plane, or maybe waiting on friends at the Mall. Something curious just appears on your phone screen.

"It would never occur to me, that someone would say, 'I think I'll take an inappropriate picture of myself, and just randomly fire it off to anyone's phone that I can find within the general vicinity,'" said Hatter.

If the AirDrop menu on your phone reads, AirDrop Off, you’re okay. You can set it to receive from your trusted contacts only, or from everyone. If it's set to everyone, anybody within a 30 foot radius can drop anything in your phone.

"I use a Mac for work and other people in my office also use a Mac, so they can AirDrop documents to me, to share documents," said Melissa Collins.

She said AirDrop is so much faster for her than trying to email and copy everyone with attachments. The entire office can get those documents in seconds.

"The possibility of you getting something, potentially much worse than an anonymous picture of someone's genitalia, something like a virus, malware, keystroke logger, or something that could do you and your family some serious harm because it steals your information, steals your identity, wipes your bank account out, or who knows what else,” said Hatter. “That, in my mind, is the real risk."

There is no easy way to identify who that sender is, but it could be done.

"Everything you do is leaving tracks, and you really have to know what you're doing to cover those tracks," said Hatter. "When that phone connects to WiFi, there's a unique address in that phone, like there is on any device connected to a network. You can eventually get back to that number. Now, there's potentially ways to mask that and that sort of thing, but I don't think you're average perv is doing that.”

Hatter’s advice is to turn AirDrop off until you need to use it. Enable, share, and then turn it back off.

It's not bad enough that your kids could receive a disturbing image, but people could send you viruses or even worse.

"I can transmit any type of file to you. Inside that file, could be some kind of virus, or other kind of malware, some kind of malicious payload. I send you a keystroke logger in the guise of something else, and now every single thing you type on your phone, including your username and password, your bank account number, your social security number, anything that you type, could be sent off somewhere out on the internet and obviously... that would be a very bad thing for you," said Hatter.

"It's very scary. I have a 13-year-old son, he turned 13 in May and got a phone in May,” said Collins.

She now wondered if her son's phone was set correctly.

"I don't know,” said Collins. “I need to find out."

She said the sheer speed at how kids learn new software or apps, and how fast they're sharing everything is frightening.

"I learn about new apps from him, sometimes, before I hear it from other people," said Collins. "I can tell you, as the mother of a 13-year-old, he does not think like an adult and sometimes he doesn't think at all, he doesn't realize repercussions, so that's why we continuously have conversations. It's an ongoing conversation," Collins said. 

This kind of petty cyber crime rarely gets the attention it needs.

Police departments are overwhelmed with worse crimes and don't have a huge staff to battle cyber crimes.

"They're not going to have someone come knocking at their door, simply because of the time and manpower it would take," said Hatter. "Unfortunately, which is often the case with this technology, somebody comes up with a good idea, something that makes your life easier and better theoretically, unfortunately, bad people figure out how to ruin it for everybody else," said Hatter.

He said cyber flashers rarely get prosecuted.

"If you did this once or twice, periodically... and you moved around? Chances are you wouldn't get caught, simply because of the overhead it would take, to track that down," said Hatter. 

Android devices can also share files using Bluetooth, but there are several steps you have to take to make even that happen and both parties have to agree to connect.

To make matters complicated with iPhones, Apple just released the new IOS11 update last week, so first,  search for the AirDrop setting on your phone, then you can access the menu.

AirDrop is now only accessible through a 3D touch on any of toggles within the “connections” tile, including AirPlane Mode, WiFi, Cellular, and Bluetooth. Simply 3D touch one of these icons and a larger menu pops up offering two additional selections: AirDrop and Personal Hotspot.

AirDrop can also be found in your settings; go to General, then AirDrop.

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