Divorced by Apple in California

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We have all gotten used to bugs causing lost data or inconvenient crashes, but here is a confirmed case of a software bug directly leading to the user’s divorce.

TLDR; If you send a text to on your iPhone, that text might end up going to a different person than you sent it to. This is not about you accidentally picking the wrong contact, or accidentally setting a wrong setting someplace- it is a case of bad software sending the text to the wrong person.

There must be more to the story

I recently met someone who was getting divorced. It all started when they got a few texts from their spouse. The spouse was away on a trip. The texts were clearly meant for someone else. They were incriminating texts. Absolutely and and undeniably incriminating texts.

As a person, I felt really bad for this text recipient. This was a truly sucky situation, technical details notwithstanding. But as a programmer, I knew there had to be more to this story.

There is just no possible way that you could spontaneously start getting texts that were sent directly to another number. No way. No programmer could allow this to be a possible failure mode. No company could ever allow a system to be implemented where this could ever happen. Delayed texts, lost texts, and garbled texts are all undesirable but acceptable failures –  but not misdirected texts.

There must be  a rational explanation. There must be more to the story.

Maybe there had been some suspicions of infidelity before the trip. Maybe the victim had surreptitiously installed a message interceptor app on the the cheater’s iPhone. Maybe they used the cheater’s password to log into iCloud and check up on them.  Maybe there was a private investigator and a Stingray.

There are lot of ways to spy on your spouse’s texts, but no one wants to appear sneaky and paranoid so it is easier to go with “I just randomly started getting their texts” knowing that everyone will (correctly) focus on the damning texts and not think too hard about their provenance.

After much tactful but fruitless questioning, I accepted that I would probably never know what really happened technically. But I had lots of plausible explanations, so I was OK with not knowing which plausible explanation was at work in this specific case. There was no irreconcilable conflict with my assumptions about how the world of software and devices and companies works. Phew.

Closer to home

Fast forward to a month later and my daughter asked me to help fix her “mixed up” iPhone. And so started the earth cracking beneath my feet…

There were two contacts involved. If she sent a text to X, it was received by Y. And vice versa. Looking at the actual messages, the only indication that something was awry were the recurrent “HA HA, you meant to send this to X!!!! ♥♥♥♥” messages.

OK, no problem here. The contacts clearly had just gotten their names/numbers swapped. I deleted both and re-added them from scratch. Only phone numbers. No email address, no Facebook IDs, JUST THE NAME AND THE PHONE NUMBER for each contact. I even used different contact names just to be sure were were using the newly added ones and not somehow getting the old corrupted ones.

Then we sent a text to contact X and called her to see if she got it. She didn’t. We called Y, and she did get it. Wait…. what?!?

We used the same contact to send the text and to make the calls. Calls went to the correct number, texts went to the wrong one. There is no possible way this could be a case of swapped contacts or any other reasonable explanation. The texts were going to the wrong recipients. Yikes, yikes, yikes!

Could this be possible? If this was true, then it had to be the biggest bug of the decade! It would be on the cover of every newspaper on earth. Could it be that somehow I was (un)lucky enough to have personally encountered the only two instances of this bug in the wild ever?

Pudding

It it is almost impossible to get 3 phones from 3 teenage girls all in the same place at the same time, but extraordinary claims often require extraordinary effort to prove.

Here is a screenshot showing one of the cases where…

  1. 9550 sends a text to 2753
  2. 2753 replies to the above text
  3. The reply goes to 1116

imessage.jpg

 

I also tried many, many combinations of manually sending texts directly to phone numbers rather than contact names, deleting contacts, and rebooting phones. I have a very long (and boring) video of everything I did if you think I might have done something wrong, but the details don’t really matter – really I think all you need to see is the above screenshot to see that something happened that should be impossible.

FAQ

Q: The two phones obviously share the same Apple ID, so of course they get each others messages.
A: Nope. These are unrelated people getting each others’ messages. And clearly these phone are all getting different texts from each other, just sometimes those texts go to the wrong place.

Q: Sounds like they swapped SIM cards.
A: Nope. And even if they had, if you send an SMS to a phone number, the SMS should show up on the phone that has the SIM for that number. And no matter what, if you reply to a text, it should always go to the phone that you are replying to and not some other phone.

Q: You just need to turn iMessage on and off, or reboot your phone, or unlink your phone number.
A: I’ve tried all these and problem persists. But this article is not about trying to solve the issue, it is about the fact that it is possible for you to do nothing wrong or tricky and have a text you send go to a completely different phone number.

Q: This is not news. Everyone knows this happens.
A: I didn’t know and I spend a at least an hour a day keeping up on tech news. My pal who hosts a top rated podacast on all things Apple didn’t know about it either.

Q: This is not news. Everyone assumes this happens.
A: Not me. I would have bet lots of money that if somehow a bug like this happened, there would be lots of buzz about it and a super high priority fix.

Q: This is not news. Everyone assumes this could happen.
A: Really? I think it is a reasonable expectation that if you send a text to a number, that the text should only go to that number or a device controlled by the person who owns that number.

Q: This is not news. Everyone should assume this happens.
A: Maybe that is what our tech world has come to, but it still makes me scared and sad.

 

11 comments

  1. B

    You should remove the contacts on the other peoples phone like you did for your Daughter’s. Remove all 3 peoples contacts from all 3 Phones. Send a message directly to the numbers to ensure it is correctly delivered and not from a contact. Once confirmed the message was received by the intended party create a contact from the message info.

    • bigjosh2

      Actually did even one better – I removed relevant contacts from all three phones (only 2 per phone because you don’t need a contact for yourself) and then tried sending texts using the phone numbers directly rather than any contacts. This is actually the case shown in the snapshot – see the phone numbers at the top rather than contact names?

  2. yoghurtgate

    I had a similar but less persistent and possibly more troubling incident a couple of years ago. I put this one down to something at the carrier. Very odd.

    I sent a ‘long’ message to my girlfriend at the time from my iPhone, to her Android.
    She received it, and sent me a snappy reply which made no sense to me in the context. Her reply indicated she thought I’d messaged the wrong person. A day later when we were in the same location, I asked to check the message, and as a sign of good faith showed the message as it appeared on my iPhone. The middle portion of the message was completely switched out in the message she received: all real text, but not written by me! Amazingly the word boundaries lined up such that it didn’t even look suspicious from a formatting perspective.

    I managed to persuade her that I hadn’t in fact mistakenly messaged the wrong lover and tried to cover it up, which was a hard sell because I’m tech and she’s not.

    • bigjosh2

      Only texts in the test shown in the above snapshot. The texts were sent directly to the cell phone number. The cellphone number was typed in manually and did not match to any contact in the phone.

      -josh

      • Michael

        They certainly look like iMessages to me because they are blue. Apple uses green for texts (I think both SMS and MMS.)

      • Josh

        Those are not texts, they are iMessages. Apple displays SMS messages with a green background, and a iMessage with a blue background. Another pointer to this being the fact is that SMS messages do not post “delivered” notifications.

        I would suspect that at some point in time, 9550 logged into their iMessage or iTunes account on 1116, and this registered the phone’s IMEI with Apple. As has been documented many many times all over the internet, it is very difficult to unregister an Apple device from iMessages once it has been registered, and users text messages from Apple devices will be redirected via iMessage whenever possible. I suspect that 1116 is still registered to receive iMessages for 9550 on Apple’s servers and this is why they receive the messages directed towards 9550.

  3. mjkantowski

    These look like iMessages to me because they have a blue background. Apple uses green for text messages (both SMS and MMS) I believe.

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