Tech Tip: Making AirDrop Work For You
Image by Buffik from Pixabay

Tech Tip: Making AirDrop Work For You

Apple’s AirDrop is a seemingly-magic service that lets two people with iPhones (or iPads or Macs) send each other files, pictures and even movies – without even needing an Internet connection!

It’s only available in the Apple ecosystem. But if you and your friend are sitting next to each other, you can AirDrop that cute photo you just took of them right to their phone. No need to text or email it to them, removing a potential source of failure. But should you leave it on?

In 2015, the BBC coined the term ‘cyber-flashing‘ in response to a woman receiving a dick pic from an unknown man on the bus. Lorraine Crighton-Smith “had been using [AirDrop] previously to send photos to another iPhone user” and left it open when the creep sent his picture. The man had to be on the same bus as her: AirDrop only works within Bluetooth range, about 30 feet.

While the only way to fix sexist behavior like cyber-flashing is to address the issue directly with the men who perpetrate it, changing AirDrop’s settings is an easy way to protect yourself.

AirDrop Privacy Considerations

In August 2020, researchers from the Technical University of Darmstadt (Germany) released details on two security issues they found in AirDrop. A persistent and skilled attacker can watch AirDrop traffic and within milliseconds get the phone number and email address of anyone nearby.

Around the world, protesters have used AirDrop to share information on the ground without relying on an Internet connection being available. It’s a pretty smart workaround to crackdowns on Internet connectivity, but poses similar risks.

AirDrop’s Privacy Options

As I’m sitting at home, I can see the iPhones of a few of my neighbors in AirDrop. In fact, I almost accidentally sent one of them a screenshot for this article instead of sending it to my own computer.

Screenshot of an iPhone

The menu title is "AirDrop"
There are three settings in a list:
"Receiving Off" has a checkmark next to it
"Contacts Only"

"AirDrop lets you share instantly with people nearby. You can be discoverable in AirDrop to receive from everyone or only people in your contacts."
Settings for AirDrop on an iPhone or iPad
Screenshot of a Mac
"AirDrop lets you share instantly with people nearby."
"Allow me to be discovered by: No One"
There is a popup menu with three options:
No One has a checkmark next to it
Contacts Only
Settings for AirDrop on a Mac

Apple offers three settings for AirDrop: Receiving Off, Contacts Only or Everyone. You can find these by opening the Settings app on your iPhone, tapping General, then tapping AirDrop. On your Mac, click on your desktop and choose AirDrop from the Go menu.

Which should you use?

Receiving Off / No One

Receiving Off, called No One on the Mac, is the most secure. As with most security settings, it’s also the least convenient. A casual browser won’t be able to find you and drop unwanted content on your phone. It’s still vulnerable to the TU Darmstadt attack mentioned above if you open a share sheet in any app – for example to text a link or picture to someone.

Contacts Only

Like it says on the label, this setting lets only people you have in your address book see you and send you stuff via AirDrop. It’s the default setting for AirDrop and makes the most sense for most people – as long as you understand the risks.


With this setting, you’re most at risk for ‘cyber-flashing’ harassment. The other person can name their phone anything they want – it doesn’t have to have their name – so you might never know who’s sending you files. If you do have to turn this on for a specific instance, make sure you change the setting right back to Receiving Off or Contacts Only.