Without looking too closely, sending email may give one the impression that messages and attachments are comfortably secured in a sealed digital envelope, certain to reach their destination and to be safe from prying eyes — but for better or worse, that is not the case. According to Macworld, Apple is deleting emails and attachments on their iCloud service which they’ve steamed open and found to contain the phrase “barely legal teen”.
While emails are generally safe from human maleficence along their route, the cold, calculating eyes of software systems are always on watch. These software systems are usually put in place to detect and block nasties such as spam, phishing and attachments that contain malware or viruses. Apple’s iCloud software it seems, just doesn’t like some phrases.
Macworld tested this assertion by sending two emails from a personal iCloud account. The first read “My friend’s son is already allowed to drive his high-powered car. It’s ridiculous. He’s a barely legal teenage driver? What on earth is John thinking”, the second email was exactly the same except the phrase “a barely legal” was replaced with “barely a legal”, a small change but enough to toggle iCloud’s interest. The second email was delivered as expected, the first was not — censored, Macworld believes, by iCloud’s heavy-handed software filters.
The phrase “barely legal” in the context of Macworld’s test email seems innocuous enough, but the phrase also has decidedly less savoury connotations. It is often used in the adult film and photo industry to describe models and actors who are just over the age allowed by law (18-years-old in Canada and most of the United States). Given Apple’s history of censoring apps and e-books due to what they consider pornographic content it’s no surprise that they might take issue with the term “barely legal teen”, even if it is describing something legal — barely. Going so far as to block email, without any notice, is an extreme tactic and begs the question: what other phrases has Apple deemed undeliverable?
One could argue that this type of censorship may in some way prevent an illicit act, though in an earlier discovery of the behaviour, it simply prevented a screenwriter from emailing the draft of his script to the project’s director. It seems to me that common sense would dictate that the sender be notified in the event an email is not delivered by a service, but don’t reach for your pitchforks quite yet, it seems iCloud users all agreed to this when they signed up; you all read the terms and conditions right?
“Apple reserves the right at all times to determine whether Content is appropriate and in compliance with this Agreement, and may pre-screen, move, refuse, modify and/or remove Content at any time, without prior notice and in its sole discretion, if such Content is found to be in violation of this Agreement or is otherwise objectionable.” – [emphasis ours]
Censoring pornographic content may seem appropriate, even if this particular example is rather over-the-top, but one has to consider the possibility of iCloud or another email provider using this tactic to censor correspondence based on phrases related to religious or cultural beliefs — and here we were led to believe Microsoft was Big Brother. I’d say share this article to help spread awareness, but who knows if it would actually get delivered.