Apple urged to alter iMessage updates to better protect sexual harassment victims

  • 16/06/2022
The iMessage icon on an iPhone
An open letter to Tim Cook said perpetrators would take advantage of the functionality. Photo credit: Getty Images

Apple has been urged to change its recently announced updates to its iMessage service in order to better protect survivors of sexual harassment and assault.

The US-based tech giant revealed last week that iOS 16, due out later this year, will allow users to edit or unsend messages for up to 15 minutes after sending.

However, Dallas-based lawyer Michelle Simpson Tuegel wants the company to rethink that stance, saying it will expose victims to additional harassment and bullying.

In a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, Simpson Tuegel said perpetrators would take advantage of the tools "to send harmful content knowing they can destroy evidence of their misconduct".

She acknowledged that iMessage wasn't the only messaging app that offers such functionality, but the fact that it's the default app used on iPhones makes a difference.

The lawyer, who has represented hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse, including former US gymansts abused by team doctor Larry Nassar, wrote that evidence such as iMessages "regularly plays a critical role in the prosecution of both civil and criminal abuse and assault cases".

"A perpetrator can send violent content to their victim, and then edit the messages within 15 minutes to hide evidence of their abuse," Simpson Tuegel wrote.

"Victims of trauma cannot be relied upon, in that moment, to screenshot these messages to retain them for any future legal proceedings - particularly when the abuser is engaging in a form of psychological warfare.

"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 victimised."

In one of her suggestions, Simpson Tuegel asked Apple to decrease the amount of time users can unsend or amend their messages to just two minutes.

"Someone using iMessage for bullying and harassment will face much greater risk if they know their messages become 'permanent' after two minutes," she wrote.

"First, there is a lesser likelihood the message recipient will see the transmission in two minutes versus 15 – meaning the perpetrator will need to weigh inflicting harm on their victim versus destroying the evidence before a two-minute clock expires.

"Second, that shorter window of time can insert doubt into a perpetrator's mind that they will be able to delete all harassing messages before time expires.

"Third, it is not uncommon for an abuser to send threatening messages in the ;heat of the moment; that could subside several minutes later. A shorter two-minute window increases the chances these messages are preserved."

The lawyer also wants users to be able to opt out of the iMessage edit/delete feature and clarify exactly who has access to the edited and deleted data.

Another suggestion, that the recipient receives a notification that a message has been edited or deleted, is already part of the system.

Users will be able to see that a message has been edited or unsent, but won't see the original content.

As part of iOS 16, Apple unveiled a new tool called Safety Check, which is designed to allow those in abusive relationships to quickly turn off data and location sharing.

It also resets the privacy permissions for each app, signs the user out of iCloud on all other devices and limits messaging and FaceTime to the single device in the user's hand.

However, Simpson Tuegel clearly doesn't believe this is enough and wants Apple to lead by example and influence other messaging platforms.

"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," she concluded.