Stop getting random AirDrops

Tips & tricks
7 mins
AirDrop icon parachuting with a pair of scissors cutting the strings.

Imagine this: You’re on a plane headed for a well-deserved vacation, and your iPhone pings you with an AirDrop notification mid-flight. What shows up is—what else?—a nude. You just got cyber-flashed on your flight.

Unfortunately, the phenomenon of unwanted AirDrops is not uncommon, whether on flights or another type of group setting where you’re surrounded by strangers. In fact, in a recent case, a pilot threatened to fly back to the originating airport if the nudes didn’t stop.

AirDrop is a file-sharing feature on Apple devices, like the iPhone and Mac, that allows users to transfer photos, documents, or links to each other. It’s convenient because it allows you to share files at full original quality with a few taps without the need to open up your email or chat apps. You also don’t need an internet connection.

But this means Apple users could get random, unwanted AirDrops sent to them in public. Sometimes, these AirDrops are memes, but other times, they’re something unpleasant. Here’s all you need to know about Apple AirDrop and how to stop receiving random AirDrops.

How does AirDrop work?

AirDrop lets Apple users wirelessly share photos and other files with Apple devices nearby. Normally, this means you might be looking at some photos on your iPhone with a friend, and your friend asks you to AirDrop their favorite one to you on the spot.

AirDrop lets Apple users wirelessly share photos and other files with Apple devices nearby. Normally, this means you might be looking at some photos on your iPhone with a friend, and your friend asks you to AirDrop their favorite one to you on the spot.

You can send AirDrops to any compatible Apple device, even if the iPhone, iPad, or Mac doesn’t belong to anyone in your contact list. Every AirDrop transfer is encrypted, and the receiver must click on “Accept” for the file to download or for the link to open.

How to use AirDrop?

To AirDrop files, photos, videos, and data like passwords and links to someone, both parties’ devices must satisfy these requirements:

  • The sender and recipient must be signed into their Apple IDs for AirDrop to work.
  • The sending and receiving Apple devices must run iOS, iPadOS, or OS X. 
  • Both devices must be within 30 feet (9 meters) of each other.
  • The devices need to have AirDrop turned on, with AirDrop set to either “Contacts Only” or “Everyone.” Turn AirDrop on in the settings menu of your Apple device.
  • The devices must have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned on.

Here’s how you can AirDrop files, photos, and videos with your Apple device.

  1. From the file or link you want to share, click on the share button at the bottom of the screen.
  2. Nearby devices with AirDrop turned on might appear automatically. Clicking on the AirDrop icon on the app row will reveal all of the ones within range.
  3. Tap on the intended recipient to AirDrop your file.
  4. If you’re AirDropping to another device with your Apple ID, the file will auto-download. Otherwise, the recipient will need to click on “Accept” or “Decline”.

Step-by-step screenshots on how to use AirDrop

Why are you receiving AirDrops from strangers?

The prevalence of Apple devices and AirDrop’s ease of use has given rise to AirDrop Culture. This is when files get AirDropped to every compatible device within range. Whether done as a prank or for malicious intent, being the target of an unwanted AirDrop can be irritating or even disturbing.

If you have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi turned on, anyone could try to AirDrop something to your device. Depending on the file, it’s likely you’ll see an image preview first, and you’ll be prompted to accept or decline the AirDrop. If you don’t know the sender, you’ll probably hit Decline—but you’ve already been exposed to the image, which could be something you very much did not want to see during your commute or morning coffee.

From subway stations to cafes, flights to cinemas, and even schools, unwanted AirDrops can happen anywhere with enough people for the sender to remain anonymous. Senders will also change the name of their iPhones to something that makes them hard to identify.

Types of random AirDrops

AirDrops are normally sent between people who know each other, often with the full expectation that an AirDrop is coming. But that’s not always the case.

Here are the types of unexpected, unwanted AirDrops that are common.

  • Memes. Perhaps the most common type of unwanted AirDrop. Apple’s AirDrop has evolved into a social network amongst teens. Much like friends sharing memes on Facebook, teens use AirDrop as a fast and convenient way to communicate with the people around them. However, this behavior might be considered invasive, as their files are shared with everyone within AirDrop range including strangers.
  • Unflattering photos. AirDrop has also become a tool for bullying in schools. Bullies can disseminate unflattering photos of targets.
  • Protest messages. Sometimes governments try to squash dissent by digitally isolating protestors through firewalls and blocking the internet. Protesters have used AirDrop to circumvent these forms of censorship to share messages with people about their cause, as protesters in Hong Kong did. 
  • Malicious links. Even though AirDrops are encrypted, the files or links can contain viruses. Hackers can AirDrop links that could send the recipient to a malicious website, putting them at risk of cyberattacks like scareware.
  • Graphic imagery. When an AirDrop is sent, a preview appears on the recipient’s phone. Some people use this to harass people in their vicinity by sending sexually explicit or distressing images. There is not much recourse for victims. 
  • Social media links. AirDrop is also used to share social media accounts. People do this to increase social media clout; some even hope to get dates from sharing their social media profiles.
  • Test answers. Schools have to grapple with students trading answers for tests and homework through AirDrop. Some teachers have resorted to blanket bans to combat the issue, even voiding a test if a phone is out.

Are AirDrops safe to accept?

Generally, AirDrops are safe to accept when you know the sender and have consented to be AirDropped a file. When you accept an AirDrop, it will come through the same app it was sent from—app links open in the app store, photos download to your Photos app, and web links open in Safari.

However, some users abuse AirDrop to send malicious files that could download malicious software onto your device. It is best to exercise caution when you receive a random AirDrop and reject it.

AirDrops are a secure way of sharing files as they are encrypted. Keep your device up to date so that known vulnerabilities are patched.

How to stop getting random AirDrops

There are many reasons to avoid random AirDrops. Some people get confused and worry about the meaning of an obscure meme, downloading too many AirDrops takes up precious storage space, and some users spam AirDrops to crash a target’s phone. Receiving unwanted AirDrops can be distressing or even risky. Here are some steps you can take to avoid it:

  • Turn AirDrop off. When you do not intend to transfer files via AirDrop, turn the feature off so that other users will not find your device. On an iPhone and iPad, set AirDrop to “Receiving Off.” On a Mac, set AirDrop to “No One” to turn it off.
  • Set AirDrop to “Contacts Only.” The “Contacts Only” setting allows only people in your contact list to AirDrop files to you, preventing unwanted AirDrops from third parties. For this setting to work, both devices need to be signed in to iCloud, and each user must be in the other’s contacts. 
  • Decline incoming AirDrops. If you must have AirDrop on and open to everyone, you can choose whether or not to accept a file. If you’re unsure who the sender is or did not expect to be AirDropped any files, block the transfer by rejecting the AirDrop.
  • Change your AirDrop name. While this is a tactic used to send unwanted AirDrops, it could be used as a means to protect yourself too. Most people use their real names on their phones, so changing this name could help you be more anonymous and prevent anyone from targeting you specifically. 
  • Disable AirDrop. By disabling the feature, you prevent not just others from sending you AirDrops but also stopping yourself and others (such as your children) from accidentally or intentionally Airdropping your files to other people. To do this, go to “Screen Time” in your settings menu and toggle “Content & Privacy Restrictions” on. Next, tap on “Allowed Apps” and toggle AirDrop off.
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