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Silent email filtering makes iCloud an unreliable option

Dan Moren and Lex Friedman | March 1, 2013
Apple's iCloud email service blocks messages containing certain phrases. Lex Friedman and Dan Moren argue that, because of this policy, folks who depend on email shouldn't rely on iCloud.

These days, so much important communication is conducted by email that we expect it to be rock solid. So when emails don't arrive--or even worse, we don't know that they didn't arrive--it can be worrisome.

Last November, our friends at Infoworld reported that Apple's iCloud email system silently blocks emails containing certain phrases. And that hasn't changed in the intervening months, as Macworld UK reports.

Granted, the phrases in question may not be the kind that you're likely to exchange with your correspondents.

Through our own rigorous testing, we've managed to confirm that emails containing the phrase "barely legal teen" are simply never delivered to iCloud inboxes. In fact, we found that even emails with the offending phrase contained in an attached PDF--even a zipped PDF--were blocked.

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.

In our tests, we did find that the filtering only occurs on inbound emails, not outbound emails. So you can at least send emails from your iCloud account with the phrase "barely legal teens" to your heart's content, though don't be surprised if you start to get funny looks from all your correspondents.

This email will never arrive.

Having discovered that, we also located a workaround that allows emails with the phrase "barely legal teens" to arrive in your iCloud inbox: If you send an email containing the filtered phrase, and the recipient replies to it, the reply will show up in your inbox. However, that's hardly a solution to the overall problem, unless you plan to ask all of your email correspondents to never send you brand new messages, but instead always reply to one of your messages.

We contacted Apple for their comment on the issue, and a spokesperson told Macworld "Occasionally, automated spam filters may incorrectly block legitimate email. If the customer feels that a legitimate message is blocked, we encourage customers to report it to AppleCare."

Why that's a terrible answer

Of course, that introduces a sort of existential dilemma here: How do you report the non-arrival of an email that you never received?

If it's an email whose arrival you've expected then, yes, you might very well be nonplussed when it didn't arrive. But we all get plenty of emails that we don't expect--and some of them aren't even spam. Reporting that you're missing an email that you don't even know someone sent you is a positively Sartrean task.


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