Apple explains the strange iOS 17.5 bug that made photos reappear

The iPhone 14 Pro Max being held in a hand
The iPhone 14 Pro Max (Image credit: Future)

When iOS 17.5 rolled out on May 13, several reports appeared online from iPhone owners claiming their device brought back deleted photographs. It quickly resulted in a security scare as some people worried their smartphones might actually be holding onto file data without their knowledge. It was fortunately patched soon after with the release of iOS 17.5.1

No one really knew what caused the error in the first place. Early theories pinned the blame on a software bug, however the patch notes for iOS 17.5.1 said it was because of “database corruption”. People felt that the explanation was too vague, so Apple decided to provide more details in response.

In a statement to 9To5Mac, the company states the old images resurfaced due to a “corrupt database entry” within the iPhone’s file system. It affected the pictures on the mobile device, but not the files synced to iCloud. So even if they were gone on iCloud, they stuck around on the smartphone, hidden from plain sight, only to reappear when iOS 17.5 was installed. 

Apple goes on to state the reason why the photographs showed up on users’ new iPhones was because of the same corruption. Affected files could have jumped from one device to another if someone performed a file transfer or restored them from an iCloud Backup.

Fixing the problem

Apple didn't say what it did to fix the problem, however researchers at cybersecurity company Synacktiv reversed-engineered iOS 17.5.1 to see exactly how it was addressed. The whole report is a dense read as it really gets into the nitty-gritty. 

Essentially, though, Apple added a “migration routine” in iOS 17.5 that had a bug where it would scan an iPhone’s file system looking for photographs. If it found anything, it would add them to the photo library, resulting in deleted images reappearing. 

What's particularly strange is iOS 17.5.1 removes the routine, but not the files. Synacktiv claims Apple did not purge any of the “‘deleted’ pictures lying on the file system.” They’re still there in some dark corner of your iPhone. 

We couldn't help but wonder – why are iPhones saving pictures to the file system? Shouldn’t the image files only exist in the Photos app? No one knows, not even Synacktiv, although there may be an explanation.

A feature, not a bug

The report links to a Reddit post made on May 20 from a user who claims to know a guy who works as a “private contractor at Apple” who supposedly gave them insight into what happened. Take this information with a grain of salt. According to this mystery source, iPhones can sometimes save images or screenshots to both the Files and Photos app. The criteria on what gets saved depends “on different factors”. They didn’t say what these are.

So even if you delete an old picture from the Photos app, an exact copy could exist within Files and this is what the migration routine mentioned earlier is recovering. The Reddit user goes on to say their “friend” states Apple is not spying on people. This is not some backdoor into iCloud as “your… data is mostly secure.”  

You may be wondering: why does iOS save two copies of certain images? Again, no ones knows for sure. That’ll just have to be a mystery for another day. We did reach out to Apple for further clarification, and we'll update this post when and if we hear back.

Be sure to check out TechRadar's list of the best iPhones for 2024.

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Cesar Cadenas

Cesar Cadenas has been writing about the tech industry for several years now specializing in consumer electronics, entertainment devices, Windows, and the gaming industry. But he’s also passionate about smartphones, GPUs, and cybersecurity.