Bugs & Fixes: iPhone 3.0's mystery Mail bug

iPhone OS 3.1 has already been seeded to developers. Expect a public release in the next month or so. You can also expect the update to squash bugs that have been identified in the 3.0 version. High up on my wish list is the eradication of the “mystery mail” bug. Here’s how it works:

Go to the Spotlight search page and enter some minimal text; any vowel or common two letter combination (such as “sa”) will likely be sufficient. With a bit of luck, the results that appear will include some e-mail messages. If you have been using your iPhone to send and receive e-mail and have previously deleted messages, you may be surprised to see that some of the listed e-mails are ones that you long ago trashed. At least that’s what happens to me, as well as numerous others who have reported this symptom.

Go ahead and tap on one of these mystery messages. You’ll be taken the Mail app and the message will magically appear, as if you had never deleted it. However, if you tap to exit up to the parent screen (such as Inbox), the message vanishes. It won’t be in any of the Mail account’s folders—not in Inbox, Sent, or Trash. Yes, I know that messages may be saved in Trash after you first delete them, but that’s not what’s going on here. There is no way to return to see the message again from Mail. The message appears gone—as intended. Yet, Spotlight will continue to find it and allow you to view it.

You may have heard that, with iPhone OS 3.0, you can search a mail account’s server for messages that are not on the iPhone. This should work for most IMAP accounts (such as MobileMe). However, this, too, is not what’s going on here. In my case, I checked the server’s contents for the mystery mail. The messages were not there. As another check, the messages still showed up in Spotlight even when the iPhone was not connected to the Internet.

All I can conclude is that the mystery e-mails are deleted messages that have not been truly erased from the iPhone’s drive. While they are no longer listed in Mail and can be overwritten if their space is needed for new content, the messages otherwise remain intact. Spotlight locates them, mistakenly identifies them as undeleted messages and lists them.

If you aren’t aware of this bug, you’re likely to find the situation to be more than a bit confusing. It’s also a minor security risk. That is, if someone gets even temporary access to your iPhone, they could find e-mails you’ve deleted—without needing any “hacking” skills to do so. Hopefully, Apple is aware of this bug and intends to fix it in iPhone OS 3.1.

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