Apple still opaquely filtering iCloud emails that contain spammy phrases

Apple has long been filtering/censoring email messages sent through their service, originally .Mac, then MobileMe, and now iCloud. Charitably, this could be viewed as just another layer of anti-spam, however the lack of transparency remains concerning. This issue was brought back into the spotlight when a Steven G., a developer of screenplay writing software, received a complaint from a customer who was having trouble delivering a script. Robert X. Cringely of Infoworld quotes the developer:

AND THEN I SAW IT -- a line in the script, describing a character viewing an advertisement for a pornographic site on his computer screen. Upon modifying this line, the entire document was delivered with no problem.

The offending line was "barely legal teens", which sounds like something found in porn-spam, but to both test and highlight the problem:

He created another PDF containing a variation of the offending line from the screenplay: "All my children are barely legal teens -- why would I want to let them drive by themselves?"

Yes, you guessed it. That attachment got sent to email hell.

According to Lex Friedman and Dan Moren of Macworld, who verified the issue, you won’t have trouble sending messages with these phrases, as the filtering applies only to inbound mail, but you won't be able to receive anything with any blacklisted phrases, even if they're contained in PDF or ZIP attachments.

Even if you, like us, would almost never receive a legitimate email with such a phrase, this could still be problematic. For example, had you emailed someone about the fact that Apple blocks emails with the phrase “barely legal teens,” that email would itself never arrive. And if, as with the person who originally reported the issue to Infoworld, you were attaching a work of fiction with such a phrase, that too would be blocked.

This is troubling, and is not a new practice for Apple. It casts doubt on the reliability of iCloud as a primary email service. While you might not use the phrase “barely legal teens” in your regular correspondence, it’s ultimately an arbitrary restrcition. The real problem is that we don’t know all of the phrases that Apple filters. Because of that, we can’t trust that all of our email will arrive, and if that’s the case, you might want to look elsewhere for your email needs.

If Apple were to simply move the emails to junk, rather than obliterating them, there'd be no issue. Any false-positives could be found and rescued. The issue is, and remains, transparency -- a good idea implemented in a bad way.

What do you think? Is Apple overreaching, or just practicing aggressive spam filtering? If you use iCloud email, does this make you wary?

Source: Infoworld, Macworld UK, Macworld

Joseph Keller

Joseph Keller is a news reporter for iMore. He's also chilling out and having a sandwich.

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Reader comments

Apple still opaquely filtering iCloud emails that contain spammy phrases

20 Comments

Just when I thought it was safe to convert to iCloud, we get this crap from Apple. Since when did I need Apple to act as my guardian and protector of all things illicit, spam related or what Apple feels is questionable or otherwise not to THEIR liking. Just another reason not to use iCloud because I can't trust Apple to deliver my emails to me.

Boy is this true. I struggle because I want to go "all in" with Apple services, but the trust isn't there. Google, on the other hand, is the defacto solid email provider. And I don't want to worry if it gets there or if I'm missing emails that I likely wouldn't know I'm missing anyway, so I have stuck with Gmail. It. Just. Works.

This has been my issue for some time with Apple and has actually caused me to go from being an all in Apple user for over a decade to an all out user on other platforms. Every time I have tried to considered the move to iCloud I find another reason not to. If I can't trust that my emails and information is safe and secure let alone being delivered then how can I trust in the company.

I don't need a babysitter at my age and I certainly don't need someone standing over my shoulder watching my emails either.

While I consider the move back to Apple again I know one thing for sure, I WON'T be using iCloud for anything that is mission critical like email, contacts, calendar, heck I won't use it at all.

Agreed with all of the above comments. It's not even that they're trying to filter spam or porn or whatever -- it's that they're making whatever gets caught in the filter disappear without notifying us or giving any chance for an error to be corrected, and they think this is okay. I won't use iCloud mail for any purpose if I can't trust it.

Barely legal means legal. Also why no frank disclosure except in fine print about filtering. I had just started the process of switching from gmail but I would rather have google algorithms and ad placements than guessing if any text in an email may end up with the Apple deleting it without delivery or notice of nondelivery. Seems interesting that lately i am finding out more and more how your personal and business emails are being scanned or monitored. Isp's are monitoring copyrighted file sharing... With all the monitoring lets at least hope that viruses, malware, and trojans could be wiped out while everyone is searching through what everyone is doing online.

Wait until iPhones start monitoring your conversation for lines like that. Terminate the call once they think you might be up to something Steve wouldnt have approved of, regardless of its legality.

That would be the line to not cross for an app/service. When the customer doesn't know when something is working or not, and with no apparent feedback, it fails to be useful.

I just tried testing this with my @me.com address with that exact phrase in there and it came through just fine. Did it both with that phrase in the text of the message and another with it in a PDF attachment. Both from different sending email addresses. No problems at all....was immediately delivered to my inbox.

The other day I realized I wasn't getting emails from my long lost cousin who, as it turns out, just happens to be a wealthy African prince. Thanks to apple I missed out on the chance to pocket 10% of a hefty sum just to deposit some money into a bank account for him. I'm sure we will have a laugh about it at the next family get together but man what a a pain. Gmail for the both of us from now on.

The problem with this is we can all say "screw this, I'm switching to gmail" -- but how do we know Google isn't doing the same thing? Then, of course, we are subject to being "Scroogled" so maybe outlook.com is the answer? Since they don't read our email, according to their ads.

:)

I have never had someone contact me and say why didn't you reply to my email, or call me, or txt me. If its not in my inbox on gmail and its not in my spam (1-3 a day at most) then it is more likely than with iCloud that it was delivered. Besides Google gets ad revenue from it so they really don't care what the content is, maybe you want those "barely legal", but still legal teens in your inbox.

"I have never had someone contact me and say why didn't you reply to my email, or call me, or txt me. If its not in my inbox on gmail and its not in my spam (1-3 a day at most) then it is more likely than with iCloud that it was delivered."

How is iCloud any different? I have never, aside from the Comcast issue 7-8 years ago I mentioned, ever had that happen with iCloud. Your argument can be used for any service.

"Besides Google gets ad revenue from it so they really don't care what the content is, maybe you want those "barely legal", but still legal teens in your inbox"

Exactly like the Scoogled commercial! :)

The solution that I've done is to have my own domain. You can buy one from companies such as Host Monster and then you can have unlimited E-mail addresses. You can sell them as your friend as there is no GB max limit nor the spam problem we have now.

However, I do not use icloud email for anything. I only get email to that account from apple and it's usually spam.

You only get email there from Apple and it is usually spam? Must have checked something downloading iTunes or something because they (like amazon, Microsoft, google) only send me email I can understand getting.

I have done that as well, but you only get 2GB of storage for each account and honestly it was not worth the work in the end, perhaps I will go back to the old days of vanity email domains ;)

Have you tried it independently to see if it actually is happening for you?

Cause I did.....and the emails came through just fine.

E-mails from PopMarket.com, a music seller owned by Sony/BMG, always end up in my junk mail box, even though I have a filter to send them to the inbox.

My iCloud, is suprisingly the only email address where I want to receive more emails. I bet Apple is saving me from all of those spam emails I'd be receiving!

Thought iCloud might be filtering some e-mails after reading this thread (and deleting them rather than passing to Junk). However, I was unable to replicate the issue in the post. Sent "barely legal teen" in subject/content including pasting it repeatedly over and over from 5+ e-mail addresses. All made it to my iCloud inbox with 0 issues, not even flagged as junk.

Hmmmmm.