Cyber Flashing: I Had To Educate Police About The Crime I Was Trying To Report

"It shouldn't be the victim's job to explain the tech..."

A woman who was sent multiple unsolicited pictures of a man’s genitals while travelling on the Tube, claims she had to explain smartphone technology to a British Transport Police officer when she tried to report the incident.

Kara* was cyberflashed while she sat in a relatively empty carriage, near a group of teenage girls on their smartphones, as she travelled home to Hackney in east London at around 9pm after going to the gym.

As the train started moving, the 28-year-old received received an AirDrop request – including a thumbnail of the dick pic being sent – which she denied, only for the request to be sent again just seconds later. “I think one of the young teenage girls nearby was likely to be the intended target,” Kara told HuffPost UK. By the time she scrambled to deactivate AirDrop on her phone, she’d received the request 15 times.

AirDrop, a Bluetooth-enabled feature on Apple phones that lets recipients send messages and images to other iPhone users within 30ft, is often used to send unsolicited sexual images. The perpetrator is not able to identify the exact recipient in a crowd, but as iPhones are normally named, it’s often possible to work out if the owner is a man or woman.

Because the train was quiet, Kara thought she was able to identify the perpetrator. “[A man] was intently looking at his iPhone and kept looking over at me,” she said. “I’m born and brought up in London so was pretty unphased by it, but I was worried for two reasons – I think he was targeting the kids, and we were left alone on the Tube and he made me feel very uncomfortable. I was afraid.”

She texted the British Transport Police [BTP] on a non-emergency number and followed an auto-generated response that told her to get off at the next station – where the man also left the train – and tell a staff member. “I walked very quickly to the guard to let him know,” she recalls. “He looked a bit nonchalant and by the time he’d absorbed what I’d said the guy had left the station.” He told her to call the BTP again.

But when she called the BTP later that evening, the officer she spoke to, like the train guard, didn’t know what AirDrop was. She again had to explain the technology – “I explained it in the context of bluetooth which he did understand” – before she could report the incident.

Because cyber flashing itself, as a sexually motivated crime, is not illegal in England and Wales, the officer explained that the police could possibly investigate the incident under the Misuse of Communications Act. (In such cases, however, victims are not entitled to anonymity as with other sexual offences – in Scotland, where cyber flashing is a crime, that is different).

Kara decided to pursue the incident, and two weeks later went to the police station to record a statement. But once more, the officer did not understand the offence. “He didn’t know anything about tech. I spent most of the time explaining basic apps to him,” Kara says.

“The urgent priority felt like up-skilling and training the police..."”

The BTP told HuffPost UK that all new recruits are taught about cyber flashing during training. But this is only for student trainees, not for all 3070 frontline staff. The BTP says this is an appropriate strategy because cyber flashing is still a relatively new phenomenon and case studies are still quite rare. Low numbers of reports make it difficult for the police to allocate resource and training.

Official reports of cyber flashing to the BTP are indeed low – only two or three a month, although this has increased from 2017 when an FOI revealed there had been zero reports. But of the 70 victims who have spoken to HuffPost UK about their experiences, 95% did not report being cyberflashed to law enforcement.

The BTP actively encourages more women to report cyber flashing on public transport – you can text on 61016 or call 0800 40 50 40. A campaign, ‘Report It To Stop It’, launched in April 2015 to encourage passengers to report all sexual offences on the transport network and resulted in a 65% uplift in the number of reports. The BTP hopes the same can happen here.

“Each offence reported to us builds a picture and can help bring us closer to identifying an offender, which may ultimately lead to their arrest and prosecution,” says a spokesperson.

For Kara the short-term solution is spreading awareness of how common cyber flashing is, so that when victims tell their stories, they don’t feel they are alone. “The urgent priority felt like up-skilling and training the police about the types of crime available via tech. My day job is in tech, speaking about technical concepts in a non-technical way so I was comfortable explaining it, but I didn’t think it should be the victims job to explain the technology.”