updated 01:42 am EST, Fri March 1, 2013
Emails with key phrase were being inexplicably deleted
A bizarre glitch has revealed the existence of "pre-filtering" spam deletion algorithms being used by Apple for its iCloud email. The company acknowledged the issue and has since fixed it, but when an iCloud user would attempt to send an email with the phrase "barely legal teens" in the subject, body or title of some kinds of attachments to another iCloud user, the email would not be delivered. Replies to emails with the phrase, or messages sent to non-iCloud users with the phrase, were successfully sent. Unusually, offending messages were deleted rather than simply flagged as spam.
Apple has not offered a clear explanation of why the emails were deleted outright rather than flagged, telling MacWorld only that "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." Users who complained about the strange bug noted that the phrase in question does not actually (necessarily) refer to anything that would normally be considered inappropriate or outside the User Agreement for iCloud, and could conceivably be used in normal conversation (such as talking about young drivers, or drinkers).
The User Agreement for iCloud does, however, grant Apple right to pre-screen (and modify, or delete) the content of emails if it chooses. The service routinely removes spam emails before they are delivered to users, though inevitably (and depending on the user's surfing and mailing habits) some unwanted email continues to get through. The lack of any notification to the user that potentially-valid email has been or will be deleted, however, may prove unsettling to some users -- though the incident doesn't prove that Apple typically deletes questionable email.
Still, it raises questions as to what phrases, if any, might trigger automatic deletions if the company continues the practice. It also raises the issue of whether other services, such as Google's GMail, engage in similar practices. User agreements on all the major services indicate that they have the right to do so, even if they currently do not. Spam email is a major headache for all email providers and is said to account for up to 40 percent of all email traffic.
The problem was originally discovered by a screenwriter who could not seem to send a PDF file of a script out. After doing some testing, the writer discovered that if he changed a line in the script (where a character notices an ad for a pornographic film) to take out phrase, the file went through. Presumably, Apple is current re-evaluating its methods for separating actual spam mail from legitimate communications.