Reports of cyber-flashing to British Transport Police (BTP) have almost doubled in a year, although campaigners say the number of women affected “will almost certainly be much higher”.
There is believed to have been only one arrest last year despite the rise.
Cyber-flashing is when a person is sent an unsolicited sexual image on their device by a stranger nearby through AirDrop, a file-sharing function on iPhones.
Victims – often targeted on trains due to the technology’s short range – said it caused them to feel fearful on public transport.
First reported to the force in 2015, figures obtained through a Freedom of Information (FoI) request show that incidents more than doubled year-on-year in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Last year here were some 66 reports of cyber-flashing – almost double the 34 reports in 2018 and a large jump since 2016, when three incidents were reported.
Although numbers have leapt year-on-year, police said they believed cases were still going under-reported due to victims believing the incident was “not serious enough” to speak to officers.
Just one arrest
The data, from Scotland, England and Wales, shows there was only one arrest in connection with cyber-flashing made by BTP last year, which records incidents under their malicious communications act.
The force says the majority of incidents result in the failure to identify a suspect due to the difficulty in tracing the perpetrator.
If a person’s AirDrop settings are set to “Everyone”, it means someone outside of their contacts list can request to send them a file. This can be done anonymously, as all that is shown on the receiving device is a preview of the picture and the name of the iPhone sending the file.
In 2019, where the victim’s gender was recorded by the force, the majority of those targeted (88 per cent) were women. More than half (57 per cent) of those whose ages were taken by officers were aged between 21 and 30.
Most of the incidents were recorded in London, but reports were also received at stations in Birmingham, Warwick and Guildford.
Just under half (44 per cent) received an unwanted image on London underground services last year, while 40 per cent of incidents were reported at National Rail stations.
Rebecca Hitchen, campaigns manager at End Violence Against Women Coalition, said the increase showed women were becoming “more confident they will be taken seriously” if they came forward.