The Fragility of iMessage Conversations

2019-03-14✪Permalink

A couple of times recently, I’ve had a family member or a friend come to me with a problem. At first it seems like no big deal: they accidentally deleted an iMessage conversation, and they just need to get it back. It might have some information they need, or it might have sentimental value. They look in vain for an undo button; dare I say it, they might even shake their phone. But to no avail. When I break the news to them that there is basically no solution, or that the solutions that do exist involve considerable inconvenience or drawbacks, they can be distraught, and rightly so.

Our text messages are the form of communication we have that most closely mirrors our everyday interactions with the people in our lives. The archive of these snippets of text, stretching out into the past, tells a story of the mundane and the intimate that is our lived experience. For some, the brevity of these messages makes them essentially ephemeral: a trail of crumbs we leave behind us, never returning to pick up. But for others, the unique record that they hold makes them incredibly precious, perhaps as precious as photographs, particularly when it comes to loved ones who have passed away.

With this kind of data, it’s our natural assumption that the more precious it is, the better it should be protected. Apple has made a lot of progress in this regard with services like iCloud Photo Library, which remove a lot of the worry of losing or breaking a device.1 However, it’s my contention that iMessage is where Apple is currently getting this the most wrong. Our iMessages conversations are highly valuable to us as irreplaceable personal data, but they are also far too easy to accidentally delete and very difficult to recover. A swipe and a couple of taps is all it takes.2

iCloud backup had previously solved the problem of losing your messages when you lose your phone. Since messages were stored in your iCloud backup, restoring a backup to a new device would restore all of your messages as well. Some kind of answer involving iCloud backups is what you will most often find online when you search for solutions to accidental deletion of conversations. But depending on when your last backup was, restoring your phone using a backup is likely to result in other data loss, since messages received after the time of the backup would not be contained within it. Other suggested solutions involve downloading third-party software which offers to take an unencrypted iTunes backup of your device and go digging around for your lost data. I won’t bother explaining why that’s a bad idea.

With iOS 12, the situation changed, or at least it could change. iOS 12 introduced the option – by default disabled – to store iMessages3 in iCloud (by which I mean iCloud storage not iCloud backup). In some ways, this makes things better. My full archive of messages is no longer preserved only in the iCloud backup of my oldest device. If I get a new device, or wipe and restore an old device, that archive is now synced in full. That sense of permanence, independent of a particular device, is what encouraged me to turn this option on and to recommend to others to do the same.

However, it also introduces a considerable downside. Deleting a conversation now results in it being deleted across all devices. And since it’s no longer stored in an iCloud backup, winding back the clock by restoring a backup does nothing. In 2019 I really think it’s unacceptable that an ordinary user can accidentally delete some incredibly important data and have no way to easily recover it.

So, what’s the solution to this problem? As I see it, there are two pretty simple ways Apple could improve the user experience in this regard. One is the humble undo button – even shake to undo would be better than nothing. Or they could go the way of iCloud Photo Library, and have a section where deleted conversations live for 30 days before permanent deletion. The other solution would be to have something on iCloud.com, which currently offers the ability to restore deleted files in iCloud Drive, contacts, calendars and reminders, and last but not least, Safari bookmarks!4 The fact that it is easier to restore an accidentally deleted bookmark than it is to restore all of the messages one has ever exchanged with one’s spouse, say, is just absurd.

Apple is generally pretty good at knowing the kind of digital belongings we value most and helping us to protect and make the most of them. iMessage is one where they are failing us. Let us restore them, let us back them up, and maybe let us export them to other formats without having to expose our unencrypted backups to third-party software.

  1. Insert the usual disclaimers about free iCloud storage being meagre and the importance of proper backups. 

  2. I’ve also seen people try to delete one message and hit the “Delete All” button; there is a confirmation dialogue, but it’s all too easy to breeze through without thinking. 

  3. I don’t know whether SMS are included in this. 

  4. Thank God that my bookmarks are safe from the capricious wrath of the delete button.