News

Huge rise in number of women falling victim to cyber-flashing on trains

The number of women being sent sexually explicit images by strangers on trains is going ‘largely unreported’ – despite a spike in incidents, new data has revealed.

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’.

Despite the rise there was only one arrest in 2019, according to data obtained by the PA news agency.

Cyber-flashing is when a person is sent an unsolicited sexual image on their device by a stranger nearby through AirDrop, a file-sharing tool available 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 by PA through a Freedom of Information (FoI) request show that incidents more than doubled each year in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

In 2019, there were 66 reports of cyber-flashing – almost double the 34 reports in 2018, and a large jump since 2016, when just three incidents were reported.

Rebecca Hitchen, campaigns manager at End Violence Against Women Coalition, said the increase shows women are becoming ‘more confident they will be taken seriously’ if they come forward.

But she added: ‘It can also suggest that this particular behaviour is becoming more common.

‘What we do know is that the actual number of women affected by this will almost certainly be much higher than the number of reports, and it will be impacting on their ability to go about their lives feeling safe and free.’

Although numbers have leapt year-on-year, police believe it is still going under-reported due to victims believing the incident is ‘not serious enough’ to speak to officers.

The data, from England, Scotland 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 difficulty in tracing the perpetrator.

If a person’s AirDrop settings are set to ‘Everyone’, it means someone outside of their contacts list can anonymously request to send them a file.

The receiving device shows only a preview of the picture and name of the iPhone sending the file.

In 2019, where the victim’s gender was recorded by the force, 88% of those targeted were women.

And 57% of those whose ages were taken were between 21 and 30; while 44% received an unwanted image on London Underground services last year, and 40% of incidents were reported at National Rail stations.

The Law Commission is due to examine existing legislation to ensure it is keeping pace with advancements in technology, but is not due to report back until 2021.

Clare McGlynn, professor in law at Durham University and an expert on image-based sexual abuse, said the rising number of reports shows ‘women have had enough of this harassment’.

She added: ‘Now we need action, and I am confident the Law Commission review is taking this seriously, recognising that cyber-flashing can be very frightening and adversely impact on women’s daily lives.’

Detective Inspector Ashley Cooper, from BTP, advised people to review their AirDrop settings to only receive messages from people in their contacts list.