Editing iMessages can keep abuse victims protected


Editing iMessages was one of the new features introduced by Apple in iOS 16, along with the ability to completely ‘unsend’ a message. While these are long-awaited features which will be welcomed by most, some have expressed concern about the potential for abuse.

Fortunately, it would be easy for Apple to solve this problem in a way that works for all, and I have a few suggestions for how this might be achieved …


One of the most annoying things about sending an iMessage is immediately spotting a typo as soon as you send it – the app so far hasn’t offered any way to edit or delete the message. This contrasts with many competing apps, which typically offer one or both features.

Apple has fixed this in iOS 16, offering the ability to edit a message after sending, or completely unsend it. The former is most useful to correct typos, the latter when you inadvertently sent a message to the wrong thread – or made such a hash of communicating something that it’s better to start again!

Both features are obviously beneficial most of the time, but there is one situation in which they could be harmful: when someone is sending messages to abuse or harrass the recipient. In those cases, the abuser could send a nasty message, wait until it has been seen, and then delete it, or edit it to say something innocuous. This was the concern raised by an attorney who represents abuse victims.

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.

Existing protections

Apple already incorporates two protections into the system. When a message is unsent, a record will remain in the thread stating that a message was deleted. When a message is edited, it will be marked as such, so there is evidence that a previous version existed.

Additionally, a message can only be edited within 15 minutes of sending.

Some also point out that a victim can screenshot unwanted messages to provide lasting evidence, but not all non-techy iPhone owners will know how to do this, and it doesn’t provide the same quality of legal evidence as the actual message thread. Additionally, an abuser might be sat there waiting for the delivered/read indicator, and delete it before it can be screengrabbed.

Suggested safeguard for deleting or editing iMessages

I’d propose a simple Settings toggle for abuse victims, or anyone else wanting a full record of what was sent. Call it ‘Save edited/deleted messages.’

It would work like this:

Deleted iMessages

With the toggle activated, the deleted message would be retained, with a note saying “The sender tried to delete this message.”

Edited iMessages

With the toggle activated, the original message would be shown followed by the edit:

Remember that I know where you live [Original message]

We’ll have to agree to disagree [Edited message]

Automatic activation with Safety Check

Apple has already announced one safety feature for those at risk of domestic violence, known as Safety Check.

Within Safety Check, users quickly turn off others’ access to their information. There is an Emergency Reset button to immediately reset access for all people and apps, and review account security. There’s also Manage Sharing & Access, which allows a user to customize which people and apps can access their information. Safety Check in iOS 16 allows users to easily cut ties from their partner they’ve been previously sharing information with.

It would make sense to integrate the two, so that this messaging protection toggle is automatically activated when someone uses the Safety Check feature.

A stronger protection would be retroactive activation

Not all abuse victims will be expecting unpleasant messages. An additional layer of protection here would be to allow anyone to reveal edited and unsent messages by long-pressing on the edited message, or unsent notification.

This would be a win-win

In this way, we’d all retain the benefits of the new features, while abuse or harassment victims would be properly protected, with a full record of the messages they were sent.

Some might object that anyone could enable the toggle for trolling or embarrassment purposes, but it should be noted that the ability to edit or recall a message is only a convenience function – it’s not a guaranteed way to avoid embarrassment. There are third-party apps which will show deleted or edited messages in apps like WhatsApp, and the contents of messages may be visible in notifications. So the ability to edit or delete a message is simply a means to keep things tidy.

In any case, someone being embarrassed by a messaging mistake is clearly the lesser evil here.

That’s my view – what about yours? Please take our poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.

Photo: Danie Franco/Unsplash

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