Plane evacuated after suicide vest picture AirDropped to passengers and crew

JetBlue pilot alerted US authorities about disturbing image sent to multiple Apple devices on board

A JetBlue plane like that at centre of AirDrop drama
(Image credit: DANIEL SLIM/AFP/Getty Images)

A plane bound for Florida was evacuated at a New Jersey airport after a prankster sent an image of a suicide vest to the iPhones of passengers and crew as they awaited take-off, US authorities have revealed.

The pilot of JetBlue Flight 573 to Tampa raised the alarm after multiple people on board, including two flight attendants, received the disturbing photo through AirDrop - a feature that allows users to transfer photos between Apple devices, reports NBC New York.

The plane was ordered back to the gate at Newark Liberty International Airport, and the 150 people on board were asked to return to the terminal while Port Authority police and bomb-sniffing dogs checked the plane. Following a thorough search, and the re-screening of the passengers and their luggage, the flight was able to depart several hours later.

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A JetBlue spokesperson said that the measures had been taken “out of an abundance of caution” and that no other flights departing or arriving at the airport had been affected. Investigators believe the person behind the prank was probably on board, but the photos have not been traced.

The incident, on Saturday morning, is by no means the first time that AirDrop has been used for nefarious practices.

The sharing of unsolicited messages with nearby devices through Bluetooth technology has been a concern since the AirDrop feature was first introduced in 2011, reports The Guardian.

Users of AirDrop can send photos to other iOS and macOS devices within a 30ft radius. Although the receiver can choose whether to accept or decline, an image preview pops up before they respond.

“Apple users can change AirDrop settings to receive requests only from people on their contact lists, but many people have Bluetooth sharing public by default,” the newspaper says.

AirDrop is often used by teens as a means of flirting or sending memes to random people in public places.

However, it has also been used for harassment. New York City lawmakers introduced a bill last year that would make it illegal “for a person to send an unsolicited sexually explicit video or image to another person with intent to harass, annoy, or alarm such other person”, according to technology news site Engadget. The proposal followed an epidemic of unsolicited nude images being sent over AirDrop on the city’s subway.

Tracking an image back to the device from which it was sent can be difficult.

Indeed, the suicide vest snap is likely to remain untraceable “unless you were to confiscate all the devices from the passengers on the flight”, says expert Richard Gold of San Francisco security firm Digital Shadows. “Ultimately, the security concerns come down to the general principle of ‘if you’re not using something, turn it off’.”

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