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Is AirDrop secure? How to use it safely

Apple’s AirDrop allows file sharing between different Apple users on their devices. But while these data transfers are protected by Apple’s security measures, plenty of people still have doubts about the overall safety of using AirDrop. Fortunately, the AirDrop system itself has built-in security features to keep you safe — all you need to do is activate them and practice safe file-sharing habits.

Is AirDrop secure? How to use it safely

What is AirDrop?

AirDrop is a feature that allows users to send files to each other over short distances or to nearby devices. You can send multiple file types to any receiving device (as long as it’s a supported Apple product), and it’s even possible to do so without an internet connection.

Transfers are encrypted between the nearby devices and are done primarily using Bluetooth Low Energy technology. The process also uses a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi connection, though it’s not necessary to be online to use AirDrop. Apple recommends using a Wi-Fi connection whenever possible because a local Wi-Fi network shared between the sending and receiving device boosts file transfer speeds.

The convenience of quickly sending and accepting files on any Apple device — alongside the fact that various types of Apple devices support this feature — makes AirDrop a reliable and preferred way to share files.

How secure is AirDrop, and does it have any security risks?

AirDrop transfers are encrypted with TLS and Apple’s other security measures, so using it generally poses little risk. The possible security flaw in using AirDrop comes with it being a peer-to-peer connection: human error and user behavior.

Because AirDrop transfers are generally considered secure by default by its users, hackers, scammers, or other bad actors have a window of opportunity to access or inject malicious elements into a user’s device. All they need is an opening.

The possible security risks of using AirDrop

The connection between AirDrop users relies on the local connection of nearby devices, which means that without the proper precautions, other devices with access to AirDrop can potentially disrupt normal AirDrop file sharing.

Some of the threats to watch out for include:

Personal information leak

Whenever you send a file through AirDrop, the receiving device identifies you through an encrypted process known as Apple ID hashing. This hash function is based on your email address or phone number and is “scrambled” to prevent easy identification of your personal details.

However, this scrambling means your personal information isn’t completely randomized. In theory, someone can generate a list of all possible hashes and target AirDrop users, depending on the complexity of the hash. If a hacker using this method is nearby during your AirDrop transfer, they can theoretically obtain personal details like email addresses or phone numbers, but it’ll be a difficult attack to execute

Malware attacks

Another security risk for AirDrop users is the possibility of a hacker sending an infected file (usually malware or a computer virus if the target is a Mac) on their device. Once you’ve accepted a malicious AirDrop transfer, the file is sent directly to your downloads folder, where it can execute scripts.

Depending on the sophistication of the malware, it can do a lot of damage. It can steal personal information from your phone or other devices connected to your network or possibly spread itself over your Wi-Fi connection to other devices.

Man-in-the-middle attacks

Man-in-the-middle attacks are when an attacker “eavesdrops” between the communication of two AirDrop devices. However, while these types of attacks have been proven possible in the past, more factors need to be manipulated aside from two AirDrop devices trying to communicate with each other.

Given that AirDrops use TLS encryption, this type of attack would be extremely difficult to replicate with most day-to-day AirDrop transfers. It would require significant time and effort for an attacker to target what could be non-valuable information. It’s still a possible risk but an unlikely one for an average AirDrop user to experience.

How to use AirDrop safely

According to the Washington Post, far more people are using AirDrop without the proper safety protocols, especially among younger users. While the convenience and ease of access of the AirDrop feature makes socializing and file sharing far easier, it also makes it more important to protect yourself while using it.

You can increase your protection when using AirDrop in two ways: changing the AirDrop settings and practicing safe AirDrop use.

Changing your AirDrop settings

Most iOS devices won’t allow you to accept AirDrops from people not on your contact list by default. However, if you want to make sure that this setting is enabled, you can do the following:

  1. Open “Settings” on your iPhone, Mac, or Apple device.
  2. Tap “General.”
  3. Tap “AirDrop.”
  4. Change the setting from “Everyone” to “Contacts only” mode.
  5. If you don’t want to accept AirDrops from anyone, you can also toggle “Receiving off.”

Practice safe AirDrop habits

As a peer-to-peer connection, AirDrop will only be as dangerous as you’d allow it to be. Being mindful about how you use AirDrop can often be enough to avoid the worst security risks associated with the feature.

Some of the habits you can adopt include:

  • Never accept AirDrops from strangers.
  • Verify with your contacts whenever they send you AirDrops.
  • Avoid turning on the settings that allow you to accept AirDrops from everyone.
  • Don’t download files from AirDrop that you don’t trust.
  • Reset your phone if you suspect that it has been infected via AirDrop transfers.

Enjoying AirDrop safely

AirDrop is a relatively safe way to transfer files between you and the people you trust, as long as you limit your interactions to them and no one else. By following the best practices for security when using Apple’s AirDrop feature, you can freely share files among your peers while also keeping yourself and them safe from cyberattackers.


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