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Victim advocate calls on Apple to rethink how its iMessage edit feature works [U]

At the WWDC 2022 opening keynote last week, Apple shared new features coming to iMessage in iOS 16. One of the most notable features is the ability to edit and “unsend” iMessages on your iPhone after they are sent. With that comes questions on potential dangers for victims of sexual harassment and assault.

In a letter shared with 9to5Mac, attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel called on Apple CEO Tim Cook to rethink aspects of the iMessage update. The ability to edit and delete messages is not a new concept as other messaging platforms have the option. However, as iMessage is the iPhone’s default messaging platform, Simpson Tuegel stated that the service plays a critical role in how users communicate.

As an advocate for survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault, this new feature – in particular the significant amount of time allowed to edit or delete messages – will expose victims of violence to additional harassment and bullying as the perpetrator will take advantage of these
tools to send harmful content knowing they can destroy evidence of their misconduct.

imessage unsend button

Perpetrators edit iMessage evidence sent to victims

With the new iMessage update, iPhone users will have up to 15 minutes after sending a message to edit or delete. Simpson Tuegel shares an example of how a perpetrator can send dangerous content to a victim, and then edit within those 15 minutes to hide their abuse. It’s also important to note that within those 15 minutes, the sender can edit the message multiple times. She also shares it’s unfair to rely on victims to screenshot these messages within a time frame.

It is not uncommon for abusers in these types of situations to deny they even sent abusive messages at all, using their victim’s trauma to “gaslight” them into no longer believing they have been victimized.

Since iOS 16 will not roll out until the fall, Apple has time to make some necessary changes. The attorney calls out immediate solutions that Apple can do to help victims and lessen the harm that could be done with iMessage edit and delete options.

Decrease time to edit or delete iMessages

Simpson Tuegel requested Apple to change the time frame to edit and delete from 15 minutes to two minutes. Perpetrators are more likely to realize they face greater risk if their messages become uneditable in a shorter time. Additionally, a shorter time window will insert greater doubt into the harasser’s mind that they’ll be able to delete. 15 minutes is quite a long period of time to be able to edit and delete messages; the average user should need much less time to realize a mistake.

The letter calls on Apple to notify the recipient if the sender edits or deletes a message. However, through testing, we know that it does notify the recipient. 9to5Mac went hands-on with the update and found that users are notified when the sender edits or unsends a message. However, they do not know what the message was prior to the edit or deletion. Also, there are limitations to the feature as recipients who aren’t on iOS 16 will still see the original message.

iphone ios16 edit button

Allow users to opt-out of the edit/delete feature

As Apple lets users opt-out of read receipts, Simpson Tuegel states it should let users opt-out of edit/delete. In addition, Apple could ask users if they want messages they receive to be edited or deleted by the sender. If the user chooses to opt out, they could not edit or delete their messages.

Access to deleted iMessages

iOS 16 also brings a “Recently Deleted” feature in iMessage. With this, users can view messages they have deleted for up to 30 days. After the 30 days, the messages will automatically delete and be gone forever. You can go in and manually delete messages yourself before the 30-day period ends.

Apple has good intentions

In addition to the ability to edit and delete iMessages, iOS 16 also brings a new feature to protect victims called Safety Check. This iPhone setting is for the protection of those who are victims of abuse. When in danger, Safety Check lets users quickly turn off others’ access to their information on their iPhones. It includes an Emergency Reset button to immediately reset access for all people and apps. The feature allows users to easily cut ties from a partner they’ve been previously sharing their information with.

The letter concludes with:

Apple is a leader in the technology industry, and the rollout of these new iMessage features provides the company an opportunity to lead by example and influence how other messaging platforms should protect their users from harassment and abuse. While I do not believe Apple is purposefully seeking to engage in any harm by the announcement of its new iMessage feature, I hope you will take these concerns seriously to ensure the rights of victims and survivors are respected and accounted for.

Updated on 7/29: Apple has made an update to iMessage in its second iOS 16 public beta. With the edit feature, users can make up to five edits to a given message. Recipients can now see a record of edits made to the message. Also, users can unsend a message up to two minutes after they send it.

More on iMessage in iOS 16:

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