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What is cyber-flashing? First person in England and Wales convicted of offence

Cyber-flashing is a form of digital harassment or sexual misconduct (PA Archive/PA Images)
Cyber-flashing is a form of digital harassment or sexual misconduct (PA Archive/PA Images)

An Essex man has become the first person in England and Wales to be convicted of cyber-flashing. 

Nicholas Hawkes, 39, from Basildon, was arrested after a woman he had sent unsolicited photos of his exposed male genitalia on February 9 reported him to the police.

Hawkes had also sent the photos to a 15-year-old girl, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said.

He admitted to two counts of sending a photograph or film of genitals to cause alarm, distress, or humiliation, at Southend Magistrates' Court.

He was convicted at a hearing on Monday (February 12) and was remanded in custody to be sentenced at Basildon Crown Court on March 11.

Sefer Mani, from CPS East of England, said: “Cyber-flashing is a grotesque crime and the fact we were able to deliver swift justice for the two victims shows the new law is working.

“Everyone should feel safe wherever they are and not be subjected to receiving unwanted sexual images.

Cyber-flashing is a grotesque crime and the fact we were able to deliver swift justice for the two victims shows the new law is working

Sefer Mani from CPS East of England

“I urge anyone who feels they have been a victim of cyber-flashing to report it to the police and know that they will be taken seriously and have their identities protected.”

Upskirting and cyber-flashing laws came into effect in Northern Ireland in November 2023 under the Justice, Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims Act 2022. 

If found guilty, perpetrators face two years in prison and up to 10 years on the Sex Offenders Register.

Enhanced laws addressing online child impersonation and threats to share private sexual images were also introduced in November 2023.

There will also be a clampdown on people abusing positions of power to assault minors, such as in sport and religion.

But what are the cyber-flashing, upskirting, and downblousing laws in England, Wales and Scotland? Here is everything we know:

Cyber-flashing

Cyber-flashing is a form of digital harassment or sexual misconduct. It involves sending unsolicited explicit images or videos of genitalia or other intimate body parts to another person via electronic means, such as text messages, emails, or through social media platforms.

This behaviour can occur through various digital communication channels, including messaging apps, and dating platforms. It can even be through airdrop features on smartphones, where the perpetrator sends the images to nearby devices without the recipient's consent.

Cyber-flashing can be distressing and traumatic for the recipients, as it constitutes a violation of privacy, can be sexually explicit and threatening, and can cause significant emotional harm. In many jurisdictions, cyber-flashing is illegal and may be prosecuted as a form of harassment, indecent exposure, or other related offenses.

While it is not a crime to send private, intimate images or videos between consenting adults, showing or sending them to another person, uploading them to a website, or threatening to do this without consent is also a crime in Northern Ireland now.

Cyber-flashing is illegal in England, Scotland and Wales. It was criminalised in Scotland in 2010 and in England and Wales on March 13, 2022 as part of the Online Safety Act.

Lawyers will consider charging anyone caught with deep fakes, downblousing, or cyberflashing, new CPS guidance introduced in January 2024 states.

The Guardian said victims of cyber flashing and image-based abuse receive lifelong anonymity under the Sexual Offences Act from the point they make their report.

Upskirting

Upskirting is the act of taking a photograph or video underneath a person's clothing without their consent, typically to capture images of their genitals, buttocks, or underwear.

This invasive practice is usually done surreptitiously in public places, such as on public transportation, in crowded spaces, or at events, where the perpetrator can discreetly use a camera or smartphone to take illicit images.

Upskirting is a form of sexual harassment and violation of privacy, and it can have serious consequences for the victims. These include psychological trauma, embarrassment, and damage to their reputation.

In many jurisdictions, upskirting is illegal and may be prosecuted as a criminal offence.

Upskirting is the act of taking a photograph or video underneath a person's clothing without their consent (PA Archive)
Upskirting is the act of taking a photograph or video underneath a person's clothing without their consent (PA Archive)

Upskirting became a criminal offence in England and Wales after an 18-month campaign in 2019. This was under the Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019. Offenders face being jailed for two years and being put on the sex offenders register if found guilty.

The Scottish Government passed legislation criminalising upskirting in June 2019.

Downblousing

Downblousing, also known as "downblouse photography" or "downblouse voyeurism," is similar to upskirting but involves taking photographs or videos looking down the neckline or top of a person's clothing without their consent.

This intrusive act is typically done to capture images of a person's chest, cleavage, or undergarments.

Similar to upskirting, downblousing is a violation of privacy and may constitute sexual harassment or voyeurism. It can occur in public settings where the perpetrator can surreptitiously use a camera or smartphone to take the images without the victim's knowledge.

Sharing ‘downblouse’ images and pornographic ‘deepfakes without consent are crimes (PA Archive)
Sharing ‘downblouse’ images and pornographic ‘deepfakes without consent are crimes (PA Archive)

Downblousing, like upskirting, is considered unethical and invasive, and it can cause significant distress and harm to the victims. Laws and regulations aimed at combating upskirting may also cover downblousing, depending on how they are written and interpreted.

This act is now illegal in Northern Ireland but it is not yet illegal in England, Wales and Scotland.

The only way people can be caught for committing the act at present is through the UK's Public Decency Laws.

These are defined as a level of behaviour that is "generally acceptable to the public and is not obscene, disgusting or shocking for the observers. Outraging public decency is an indictable common law offence which is punishable by unlimited imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine".