The return of deleted photos on iPhones is concerning and you need to take precautions

The return of deleted photos on iPhones is concerning and you need to take precautions
Back when Vito Corleone's daughter was getting married, a VIM (Very Important Mafioso) – namely, Don Barzini – got mad at a photographer. There he was (Barzini, I mean), minding his own business (plotting against the hosts, I mean) at the wedding party. Suddenly, his photo was taken.

He got his fellas to get the camera from the poor photographer. They ripped it open and the negative was given to Barzini. He squashed it with a face that read "Do that again and you're next".

Ok, but why am I talking about a character from Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather who likes to crush cameras and keep his anonymity?

It's because I'm making a point here. If this wasn't the 1940s, but the 2020s, Don Barzini would be in big trouble. Even if he caught that pesky paparazzo, what was the mobster going to do?

What, make him delete the photo?

Forget about it!

In these current times of ours, file deletion is not as straightforward as you might think.

Don't believe me? Well, just go and ask all those iPhone users who were at their wit's end with the iOS 17.5 and what it brought along mere days ago: a proper privacy nightmare. See, some people reported that deleted photos were returning on their iPhones and iPads.

What do you call it when something that wasn't meant to happen… happens? A miracle? A horror?

What happened with iOS 17.5?

The recent iOS 17.5 update, although introducing new features and important security patches, caused a major bug causing previously deleted photos to reappear on some Apple devices. Users reported that years-old photos resurfaced, leading to concerns about data that should have been erased.

This bug is causing discomfort and raising alarms about data privacy. Users worry that deleted information may still exist on Apple servers, posing a risk in the event of a data breach. Although the Photos app has a "Recently Deleted" folder for restoring photos deleted within the last 30 days, the photos affected by this bug are far older, indicating a deeper issue.

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Apple addressed the issue almost immediately by releasing the iOS 17.5.1 update. This is what the system message for the iOS and iPadOS 17.5.1 update read:

No, really, what the heck happened?

Google's own privacy issues

(and other notable examples)

First, let's check out the competition. Privacy issues – as a topic – is far from being an Apple exclusive: in fact, it's what you can count on from Big Tech.

  • Back in 2020, Google did a big no-no. In a significant privacy blunder, the Alphabet company encountered a major issue with its "Download your data" service for Google Photos for a period. Due to a bug, videos were accidentally sent to the archives of unrelated users, meaning some people's videos were distributed to strangers, and they might have received videos from others.

Reports had it that affected users received a notification from Google explaining the issue and suggesting they perform another export and delete the previous one. Google confirmed the problem, apologized, and assured users that the underlying issue had been resolved.

  • In 2019, a significant bug in Apple's FaceTime app allowed users to eavesdrop on others by exploiting a flaw in the group call feature. The bug enabled users to listen to others without them answering the call.
  • If we rewind back to 2018, data from 150 million MyFitnessPal accounts, including usernames, email addresses, and hashed passwords, was compromised in a data breach. This was the biggest data breach for 2018 and one of the top of all time.

The list goes on and on, with one of the most shocking data breaches being the issues with Yahoo circa 2013-2014. That's when Yahoo suffered a series of data breaches that exposed information from all 3 billion user accounts. These breaches included email addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, and hashed passwords.

What is even deletion?

When you delete a file, let's say a photo, this is what happens:

  1. The file system removes the entry for that file from its index. It no longer knows where the file is.
  2. The storage space where the file was located is marked as free space, available for new data.

This means that the file is inaccessible but not gone!

Even though the file entry is removed from the index, the actual data (the photo) remains on the storage until new data overwrites it. This is why deleted files can sometimes be recovered using special software, as long as they haven't been overwritten.


When new data is saved to the storage, it might use the space previously occupied by deleted files. This process is called overwriting. Once the space is overwritten, the original data is much harder (or impossible) to recover.

Here's an example:

Think of the whole process like erasing a book name from a list (file index) but leaving the book (file data) on the shelf (storage). The book is still there, but without the name, it's harder to find. If you replace the book with a new one (overwriting), the old book is gone.

In summary, deleting a photo makes it inaccessible but doesn't immediately erase the data. The space is just marked as free for new data, and the old data stays until something new overwrites it.

What to do?

Writing zeros on a drive, also known as zero-filling or zeroing out, is the process of overwriting every bit of data on a storage device with zeros (binary value 0). This is done to ensure that the original data is completely erased and cannot be recovered.

While I do not recommend zeroing out your mobile phone (it's possibly going to get BBB – bricked beyond belief), there are many things one could do to minimize the possibility of old, deleted data reappearing again.

Okay, before somebody does anything, hear me out: both Android and iOS users should Backup Data. So, ensure all important data is backed up to a secure location, such as Google Drive or an external storage device.

  • Android owners should encrypt the phone by going to Settings, then Security, then Encrypt phone and follow the prompts. After encryption, perform a factory reset (it's also to be found in Settings).

  • iPhone users should also start by backing up their data to ensure its safety. After backing up, sign out of iCloud and Apple ID. Then, perform a factory reset by navigating to Erase All Content and Settings, entering the Apple ID password if prompted, and confirming the reset. iPhones automatically encrypt data, so a factory reset effectively destroys the encryption keys, making data recovery extremely difficult.

For additional security:

After the factory reset, fill the phone’s storage with non-sensitive data (e.g., large video files or 2-3 large games) helps to overwrite any remaining fragments of your original data. Perform another factory reset.

Also, users could find third-party apps designed for secure data erasure to overwrite the free space on the phone after a factory reset. With a bit of research, you can easily find the perfect app for the task.

What not to do?

You know what photos (and videos!) not to take. Or if you do, wear a (ski) mask. And cover your tattoos.

Joking aside, we have to accept that no matter what, traces and tech breadcrumbs are left behind each and every digital activity of ours.

Eh, gone are the days when the only thing that was indelible was our online presence and being "offline" was seen as "safe".

The only way to combat this, as I see it, is to use common sense. In other words, we're screwed.

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