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iPhone OS 3.0’s reappearing email parlor trick



In a video on YouTube, an iPod touch owner shows off a parlor trick with the iPhone OS 3.0 where a deleted email magically remains on the device. It is an impressive trick, but ultimately just a trick.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Pick an email from your iPhone or iPod touch running the 3.0 OS and remember the subject line.
  2. Delete that email, then go to the trash folder and delete it there too.
  3. Go to the Home screen and slide over to Spotlight.
  4. Search for a word from that subject line.
  5. Hocus Pocus! Your deleted email appears in the search and you can tap on it and access it like it was never deleted! Magic!

Of course, it’s not really magic, just a bug. And despite dire warnings to the contrary, it’s not the attack of the undying zombie emails. I’ve discovered two ways to foil the trick. One of them involves a little thing called patience. Spoilers ahead.

First, this trick just takes advantage of a delay between when you take an action and when the iPhone indexes it for the Spotlight search. Apparently deleting entries from the Spotlight index doesn’t occur instantly and, from my analysis, it seems repeatedly pulling a recently deleted entry from the index or keeping it on the Spotlight search screen further delays the index update. To undo this, you can either hasten the update of the index or let it run its course.

The first method is simple. After you run the trick, tap up or down to a different email (must have other emails in your trash folder). That seems to update the index. On your next Spotlight search for the same term, the item should be gone. Simply going back to the main trash folder or re-deleting the item can work, but I’ve found it inconsistent. I think it has something to do with forcing the mail app to re-order the list of emails. Obviously though, you won’t want to do this for every email you wanted permanently deleted, so the other method I’ve discovered is… time.

Basically, I ran the trick, waited about fifteen minutes, then re-ran the search. As you can see, while the email I deleted was found one minute after I dumped it from trash (sorry, forgot to screenshot the dump), it disappeared from Spotlight fifteen minutes later.

I’ve been testing different variants of this. Sometimes checking the email folder updates the index after a few minutes. If I run the search repeatedly, deletion from the index seems to take longer, probably because I’m keeping it active, but the email usually cannot be retrieved, pulling a blank screen instead.

Regardless, emails can be completely deleted, contrary to the warning on Gizmodo, and I could not find any months-old emails as reported by the trickster, though that might be because I set my trash to dump every day. While this is obviously a bug that needs to be fixed, in my research, it doesn’t live up to the hype.

Update: After extreme fidgeting with one search, I’ve found it can be made to linger for hours. Thought I had broken the system, but I finally got it cleared from the index after some work. Also, I seem to have found an unseen folder system in the process. Couple of times while trying to get it to clear, I wound up in a trash folder that was a subfolder in “local mailboxes,” not my usual Yahoo! folder. Can’t seem to reach it any other way. I’m wondering if this folder system is more to blame for the undead emails.

Update 2: Looks like I’ve managed to break the system. My Spotlight searches for trashed emails now consistently take me to the trash subfolder in “Local Mailboxes,” (previously took me to the trash folder under the specific account) and none of the previous methods I used to kill emails seem to work here. I am now 99% sure this hidden folder is to blame for the zombie emails. However, all the emails I previously killed are still gone. The downside is, I broke my mailbox system and turned my emails into undying zombies. I believe the axiom, “Be careful what you wish for,” applies here.

Update 3: Okay, final trick: to keep deleted emails out of the “Local Mailboxes” trash folder, go to the Advanced email settings and switch the “Deleted Mailbox” from trash “On My iPhone” to trash “On the Server”. Even though I seem to have locked my locally trashed email in a state of undeath, after switching that setting, I have been able to kill emails again. Now I just have to wait and see if those zombies get purged on their own.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. GoodThings2Life

    08/18/2009 at 4:33 am

    Absolutely brilliant. I experienced similar results with files indexed by Windows Search in the earlier Windows 7 beta, but it’s better now, and understandably if I try to open something in the results I get a “File not found” error.

    Definitely some bad behavior by the spotlight search functionality. It shouldn’t be caching entire messages that way, or the email client should be purposely cleaning itself from search results.

    Agreed though, definitely more hype than issue.

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