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 the former Editor in Chief of iMore. An Apple user for almost 20 years, he spends his time learning the ins and outs of iOS and macOS, always finding ways of getting the most out of his iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac.