AirDrop is One of Apple’s Best and Most Subversive Utilities

Apple’s file and image sharing utility has more uses than you’d imagine

Illustration of people using AirDrop

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Attending the opening night of any movie is not my idea of fun. The crowds are usually too big and they tend to get a little rowdy. But I made an exception for Avengers: Endgame. Though Marvel will make many more superhero films, this one was recognized as a significant final chapter in a saga begun almost a dozen years ago with the original Iron Man.

As we waited in darkened theater, filled-to-capacity with other eager comic book fans, I realized I was looking forward to an exciting, if somber, experience. That’s when the giant, naked, purple butt appeared.

That butt, Thanos’ to be precise, was on my iPhone screen. It had been "AirDropped" to me and, very likely, to anyone else in the theater who had neglected to change their AirDrop settings back from “Everyone” to “Contacts” only.

I laughed out loud and realized that Apple’s AirDrop has, in the six years since Apple introduced it with iOS 7, become part of the cultural landscape. And yet I still run into people who’ve never heard of it, don’t know how to use it, or have no idea why they would.

Apple Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi speaks about iOS 7 on stage during an Apple product announcement at the Apple campus on September 10, 2013
Apple Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi speaks about iOS 7 on stage during an Apple product announcement at the Apple campus on September 10, 2013. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Hello AirDrop

From a technical perspective, AirDrop is a canny mix of three core technologies: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and encryption. AirDrop uses the iPhone’s Bluetooth to discover other nearby iPhones. Wi-Fi, which offers faster throughput than Bluetooth, is then used to make a peer-to-peer direct connection between two or more phones. Files and photos transferred between phones are encrypted for security, meaning no one can grab a file mid-stream and read or view it unless it’s intended for them. 

Share and Share Alike

Almost from the moment AirDrop was released, iPhone owners seized on the instant, low-friction (no inbox, message trail, social platforms), mass-share opportunities created by the new utility. In classrooms, teachers envisioned quickly sharing course plans and worksheets with an entire classroom or passing back graded papers to individual students.

Digital-native teens have been using AirDrop in class for years to conduct a silent, sub-channel Greek chorus, using images to comment on their professor or share timely memes without opening a social media app. For some teens, sharing photos via AirDrop became a preferred method over Snapchat and Instagram.

iOS AirDrop Controls and Using AirDrop to share
Found under Settings/General, this is how you adjust share settings. On the right, how AirDrop initially appears in iOS 12's share sheet.

Hey Image

My experience, though, highlights another core AirDrop feature, the instant preview. Pretty much since the introduction of the file-sharing utility, AirDrop has shown you a smaller, un-cropped preview of the photo someone’s trying to share with you. You then have the option of declining or accepting. Over the years, some have unfortunately used AirDrop as a way to share illicit and unwelcome images in a gross and unwelcome practice known as “Cyberflashing.”

AirDrop’s relatively simplistic controls should make it easy to avoid this kind of abuse. By default, Airdrop is set to “Contacts only.” You can also choose to turn it off or open your AirDrop pipeline to everyone. I know, leaving AirDrop on “Everyone” is akin to leaving your key in your front door lock and then posting a sign on your lawn that says, “Come in, stay a while.” However, there’s a reason so many people end up with their iPhone’s AirDrop setting on “Everyone.”

For me, it happens every time I go to a family event or party where I know people, but perhaps they’re not yet in my contacts. I take a nice picture (damn you, Portrait mode!), show them on my phone, and they invariably say, “Send that to me.”

I like making people happy, so I decide to share it immediately via AirDrop. Now both of us have switched our settings to “Everyone” so we can insta-share the photo. Then we both forget to go back and reset AirDrop to “Contacts Only.”

Apple has yet to change the insta-preview feature on AirDrop to help shield us from unwanted photos (it cannot be that difficult to add this control).

Some people don’t bother changing their AirDrop settings because they say it’s difficult to find. AirDrop does not appear on the main Control Panel. However, if you hard press on the Connection panel (it’s the one with Airplane mode in it), you can access a bigger list of connection tools, including AirDrop, which also lists your current sharing option. Select that and there are your “Who can connect” options.

An easier way to access AirDrop share settings.
An easier way to access AirDrop share settings.

Next Up and Android

iOS 13, which releases later this year, doesn’t fundamentally change how AirDrop works, but it does enhance discoverability. The Share Sheet, which appears when you choose to share a photo or file, now shows more detail on all the people around you who are available for AirDrop — and other sharing options like email and messaging.

Android users who have had to settle for the NFC-based Android Beam file and photo sharing option, which requires you to essentially touch the two phones together to initiate the share, may finally get their own version of AirDrop later this year. Android 10, which is still in beta, has something called Fast Share. Like AirDrop, it uses Bluetooth to discover devices and Wi-Fi to conduct the share. Since Google hasn’t confirmed this feature, Android users will just have to cross their fingers.

As for me, I declined the Thanos butt image (I have no information about who else in the theater received the share and then accepted) and quickly reset my AirDrop to Contacts Only.