Apple’s Deleting iCloud Emails That Contain The Phrase ‘Barely Legal Teens’

iCloud Storage Extended

Apple has a well documented history of banning everything that has anything to do with pornography, even if it’s only remotely related. It’s nice that Apple wants to keep the App Store clean, but their obsession with eliminating porn from computing has a lot of collateral damage.

In its latest push to get porn off your computer, Apple now deletes all iCloud emails that contain the phrase ‘barely legal teens.’ It doesn’t send the messages to spam, or flag them, it just straight up deletes them, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

It sounds like Apple’s just trying to help you avoid child pornography, but the iCloud censorship was actually discovered by an Academy Award -winning screenwriter named Steven G., who has nothing to do with child porn.

Steven G. wrote to InfoWorld that his software was trying to send a script to a director by emailing it from an iCloud account. The director never got the script, so Steven sent it multiple times as he tried to figure out why the email was getting blocked.

Eventually, Steven started cutting the script down into pieces to see which sections of the attached script were getting flagged and blocked.

“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.”

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but Steven took his testing even farther. He created a PDF containing the line: “All my children are barely legal teens — why would I want to let them drive by themselves?” And yep, Apple’s servers sent the attachment straight to hell. Then he just typed that phrase in a regular email and it was blocked too.

After more research, Steven found that under the iCloud terms of service, Apple reserves the right to remove any content at any time that it feels is objectionable, without telling you that they’re going to delete it. Apparently, ‘barely legal teens’ falls into that ‘objectionable content’ category, along with other phrases we’re probably not aware of.

We ran our own quick tests that seemed to back up Stevens claims. Apple was asked to confirm whether it’s actively scanning files in iCloud and deleting them if they have keyword phrases like “barely legal,” but they haven’t responded.

Is Apple overstepping its bounds here, or did Steven miss something else that might have caused the emails to get deleted? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments.

  • Derek Schlicker

    I fully realize there’s an implicit agreement that you’re relinquishing some control when purchasing and using Apple products in terms of system settings and hardware control, but this is a little too Big Brother for me. Its my email, leave it the hell alone, Apple.

  • Jonathan Ober

    Honestly I applaud them for this. There are over 27 million slaves in the world today many of which are children and sexualized in nature. The porn industry is out of control and threat it has on eroding humanity is exponential. Families are ruined by those involved with pornography, marriages threatened and children torn from their parents. Sure there are times when that phrase or similar phrases have nothing to do with porn, i.e. the case in the write up, but still that’s probably an iota of the actual times that messages get sent through email that are bad.

  • Wirehedd

    My only question is this; What degree of control of your email are you comfortable surrendering to a corporate entity?

  • extra_medium

    Honestly I applaud them for this. There are over 27 million slaves in the world today many of which are children and sexualized in nature. The porn industry is out of control and threat it has on eroding humanity is exponential. Families are ruined by those involved with pornography, marriages threatened and children torn from their parents. Sure there are times when that phrase or similar phrases have nothing to do with porn, i.e. the case in the write up, but still that’s probably an iota of the actual times that messages get sent through email that are bad.

    Except the term “barely legal teens” has nothing to do with child porn. Barely legal by definition means “legal” even if the phrase is referring to porn, which may or may not be the case. If they want to block emails that include the words “child porn” it would be a more understandable, but still not acceptable IMO, unless the email is coming from someone trying to promote or sell it in some way. I don’t think you can tell that by using auto-filters.

    Its not Apple’s job to protect me from emails that they, or you, might consider “bad,” as you put it, even if they DO involve some topic that is illegal.

  • Buster

    @JonathanOber I think it’s great that Apple keeps porn out of the App Store. I don’t want porn on my iOS devices, or kids getting into it that way. However, the problem with deleting iCloud emails, is that you have no idea that Apple is doing it. Steven thought there was something seriously wrong with their program. Apple should at least notify the sender that an email or attachment was blocked for inappropriate content.
    Asking Steven to sort through a 156page script just to find out what’s wrong is ridiculous.

  • seaaalex

    “Honestly I applaud them for this.”

    Only a fool applauds censorship …. I’m sorry I don’t want the morals police at Apple determining what words are in my e-mail. Where does it stop ?

  • John Howell

    Honestly I applaud them for this. .

    I would have to disagree. The phrase refers to content that is NOT illegal. And the problem is not that they flag as adult content, or mark as spam, but they just delete it without telling you, and that is irresponsible. If they want to do something to MY mail, they should say what they have done, and what policy is being enforced, and how to opt out.
    Where is the list of other booby (oops, might have that content filtered) trapped phrases that would cause your perfectly legal email to be dropped without notice?
    IMHO this is as bad as apple maps just not giving a flying shit if they send you down a goat track with navigation instead of actually checking to see if the road is actually suitable for vehicles. I spent 15 minutes In loop because navigation want to keep sending me down into a bus depot, and I stopped using it all together when it routed me to a forestry fire break instead of a main road on another trip. But off topic, filtering simple phrases like this is JUST WRONG without looking for context, and is simply LAZY!

  • joewaylo

    It’s no surprise that Apple would filter “Barely Legal Teens” which is a common phrase for teenagers engaged in explicit material which is illegal to contribute to adults or the adults would go to jail.

  • John Howell

    Further testing reveals you CAN send a mail with the phrase “Cock sucking kids” and “illegal pre teens” but NOT “Barely legal teens” which is the only phrase of the three that is legal in most countries.

  • Derek Schlicker

    It’s no surprise that Apple would filter “Barely Legal Teens” which is a common phrase for teenagers engaged in explicit material which is illegal to contribute to adults or the adults would go to jail.

    But that’s not the only time or place you’ll hear that phrase, which is the point of this story. Also, doesn’t “barely legal” still mean “legal”? You imply its somehow illegal. There’s no implicit assumption there, sorry.

  • TheDouchetag

    Standard amateur-hour maneuver by Apple: sneakily implement an offensive and ineffective “solution” that serves to embarrass customers and put their data at risk. This guy could have suffered professional harm if his colleagues, contacts, or customers decided he was blowing them off by not sending the promised E-mail. He might have dispatched the script and then gone on vacation without access to it. Who knows?

    The point is that it’s not for Apple to delete customer data without telling them. There’s no excuse for it.

  • TimeDoctor

    I could not reproduce this, I tried sending an email with that text in the body of the message and it wasn’t deleted. I also tried sending it as an attachment in a pdf and that message wasn’t deleted either.

  • RaptorOO7

    While I have little doubt that Apple would do this given their high moral convictions and need to protect us, I tried to send the email using the phrase several different ways and it arrived in both my gmail and icloud email boxes. So I wonder if they tweaked their filters after the article hit the fan.

    Now maybe they should stop being the morality police because after all I bet a lot of adult film studios use macs for editing, and people watch porn and surf porn on their macs, ipads,iphones, etc. I mean really Apple get out of our private lives.

  • chriswtburke

    I’m not shocked.. But does this mean they are reading every email I send from iCloud??

  • dproffer

    I have seen this with Apple mail service for a number of years, not new. They seem to have an unwritten aspect of their ‘service’ that allows them to delete your messages with no notice. I wrote about it here:
    https://plus.google.com/111718018022624143076/posts/4515eYcrnde

  • Sparsebundle

    I’d have to disagree and wait until further facts appear before making an assumption that Apple is filtering emails.

    Does the sender have additional virus software installed on their Mac? Does the recipient?
    Is the recipient autoforwarding emails from gmail to another email address (many people do)?
    Was the user even using the iCloud SMTP server when sending? Mail allows using alternate SMTP details.

    There’s so much that it could be and so many factors contributing to the potential missing emails before we flag it as censorship that we can’t possibly assume this. I’ve sent various emails back and forth between iCloud accounts and Gmail / Google Apps with this key phrase and none have been filtered.

    There’s more about it here http://www.sparsebundle.net/posts/apples-filtering-icloud-emails-probably-not/

    Let’s not jump on the censorship bandwagon just yet.

  • odysseydla

    Tested and replicated. If you put dashes between the words, the email goes through. Without breaking up the phrase, the email does not go through. No warning, notification, or any indication at all about what happens the the email. It just never gets delivered.

  • Felfac

    that is really taking it to far

  • Cgs101

    I miss the bounce-back feature… It was genius. Also, there’s no way to block senders anymore?

  • RealCarrera

    Fuck it, use gmail instead. I don’t agree either but who’s going to fight Apple for it?

About the author

Buster HeinBuster Hein is Cult of Mac's Senior News Editor and lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Twitter: @bst3r.

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