Apple changes AirDrop security for all with iOS 16.2 after backlash over restrictions in China

Apple is clamping down on AirDrop privacy settings for all its users with the iOS 16.2 update, after backlash its recent restrictions were impacting the feature’s use in China. In November, reports circulated that Apple had begun limiting the use of AirDrop in China as the country was facing widespread protests over the Chinese government’s “zero Covid” policy. Protesters had been using AirDrop, which leverages Bluetooth Low Energy and peer-to-peer Wi-Fi, to instantly share files with one other while avoiding Chinese censors.

By leaving “Everyone” enabled, protestors and others had been able to easily receive files from anyone else, including those who were not already in their iPhone Contacts.

Users first noticed new restrictions on AirDrop in China had arrived with the release of the iOS 16.1.1 update. After the update, iOS would revert AirDrop’s privacy settings back to “Contacts Only” after just 10 minutes even if “Everyone” was previously selected. (A user would have to manually select the “Everyone” setting — it was not the default.)

The change rolled out shortly after major media publications, including The New York Times, had reported how Chinese protestors were using AirDrop to send messages denouncing China’s President Xi Jinping as well as to share information about protests and instructions on how to download VPNs to bypass the country’s censors.

Apple, whose ties to China run deep — it’s both a key customer base and a manufacturing base — was called out by some as being complicit in aiding the Communist Party. Others, however, had argued that leaving the feature open to “Everyone” indefinitely had always been a security and privacy risk — and one that should have never been permitted in the first place.

Another news story illustrates the latter problem, in fact — a passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight recently AirDropped a naked photograph to others on the plane. The pilot threatened to ground the plane if it didn’t stop.

Reached for comment over the AirDrop changes in China, the company had said it was planning to bring the functionality to users globally in the “coming year.” As it turns out, it’s already doing so.

Apple today said the release of iOS 16.2 will now update AirDrop to revert the setting to “Contacts Only” after 10 minutes in order to prevent unwanted requests to receive content. The update was released today into beta and will be rolling out to all supported devices in the near future.

Correction, 12/7/22, 4:10 p.m. ET: Apple’s initial change in China rolled out in iOS 16. 1.1, not iOS 16.1. We’ve updated to correct this.