iCloud Was Storing Deleted Safari Browser History for Months, but Apple Fixed the Issue

When clearing Safari browser history, iPhone and iPad users expect all records to be permanently deleted from their devices, but it appears Apple's cross-device browser syncing feature caused iCloud to secretly store browsing history for a much longer period of time ranging from several months to over a year.

iCloud was caught storing deleted browser history by software company Elcomsoft, which develops cracking tools for extracting protected data from iOS devices. Speaking to Forbes, Elcomsoft CEO Vladimir Katalov explained that the company had been able to retrieve "deleted" browser history dating back more than a year.

elcomsoftdeletedbrowserhistory

Deleted browser history pulled from iCloud by Elcomsoft

Apple was keeping deleted browser information in a separate iCloud record called "tombstone," and in a press release announcing updated Phone Breaker software for extracting the stored browsing info, Elcomsoft explains that the data was likely kept as part of an iCloud feature that syncs browsing history across multiple devices and ensures it's deleted from all devices when history is cleared.

The point is that Apple keeps synced Safari browsing history in the cloud for much longer than one, three or four months - even for deleted entries. ElcomSoft researchers were able to access records that've been deleted more than a year ago, which means that deleted records are not actually cleaned up from iCloud.

Forbes tried using the Phone Breaker software created by Elcomsoft and was able to retrieve nearly 7,000 records dating back to November of 2015. Site names, URLs, Google searches, visit counts, and the date and time items were deleted were included. It's not clear why Apple was storing the information for so long, but it appears to have been an oversight related to ensuring information is deleted on all devices once cleared rather than intentional.

Shortly after Forbes and Elcomsoft published their iCloud findings, Elcomsoft noticed previously available records being deleted as part of a server-side fix quietly implemented by Apple. All deleted browser records older than two weeks have been eliminated. From Elcomsoft's blog:

Update: we have informed media about this issue in advance, and they reached Apple for comments. As far as we know, Apple has not responded, but started purging older history records. For what we know, they could be just moving them to other servers, making deleted records inaccessible from the outside; but we never know for sure. Either way, as of right now, for most iCloud accounts we can see history records for the last two weeks only (deleted records for those two weeks are still there though).

Good move, Apple. Still, we would like to get an explanation.

Even before Apple made the server-side fix to make sure deleted browsing history is permanently removed in a timely manner, it was difficult to get ahold of the information. Forensic software like Phone Breaker was required, which doesn't come cheap, and Phone Breaker only works with a user's Apple ID and password, or an authentication token pulled from a user's computer.

In iOS 9.3 and later (and Safari 9.1 and later), Apple also began turning URLs into unreadable hashes instead of plaintext when browser history is deleted, an additional security measure, but Forbes says that didn't stop Elcomsoft's tool from working with the newest versions of Safari.

While Apple now appears to be deleting browsing data at the two week mark (or has made it invisible to tools like Phone Breaker), iCloud users should be aware that their browsing history, including cleared browser history, is stored in iCloud for at least that two week period. Users who are not comfortable with that can easily disable syncing features through the iCloud section of the Settings app. Apple has not commented on Elcomsoft's finding or the apparent server-side fix.

Tag: iCloud

Top Rated Comments

AngerDanger Avatar
55 months ago
Apple was keeping deleted browser information in a separate iCloud recored called "tombstone,"
It's a shame they didn't give it some terribly creepy name… wait.

What's written on your tombstone tends to be whatever is most memorable about you, so the fact that Apple considers your internet history worthy of an epitaph is worrisome.



Attachment Image
Score: 27 Votes (Like | Disagree)
yaxomoxay Avatar
55 months ago
Glad they didn't tell my wife......
Score: 17 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Naraxus Avatar
55 months ago
So the line that Cook would always espouse about Apple caring about user privacy is exposed for bull that it always was.
Score: 12 Votes (Like | Disagree)
maflynn Avatar
55 months ago
What else are you looking for from them, though?
Too many companies seem to hide behind it was a bug excuse when they're caught hanging on to data they probably shouldn't have. For a company that seems to pride itself on privacy, this is rather disappointing.
Score: 11 Votes (Like | Disagree)
iShatMyself Avatar
55 months ago
Glad I never used iCloud.
Score: 8 Votes (Like | Disagree)
slimothy Avatar
55 months ago
This is not good.
Score: 8 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

tile sticker e1570533758981

Tile CEO: 'We Welcome Competition From Apple, But We Think It Needs to Be Fair'

Tuesday May 4, 2021 9:51 am PDT by
Just after Apple announced its AirTags, Tile CEO CJ Prober relayed his concerns about competing with Apple in the tracking space, and said that Tile would ask Congress to investigate Apple's business practices specific to Find My and item trackers. Prober this week did an interview with Bloomberg, where he further expanded on Tile's complaints about Apple and why he feels that Tile is...
signal instagram ads3

Signal Shares the Instagram Ads Facebook Doesn't Want You to See

Wednesday May 5, 2021 1:29 am PDT by
Encrypted messaging app Signal has had a series of Instagram ads blocked from the social media platform, after it attempted to show users how much data the Facebook-owned company collects about them and how it's used to push targeted ads. In a blog post, Signal described how it generated the ads to show users why they were seeing them, simply by declaring upfront the information that the...
tracking disabled ios 14 5

Analytics Suggest 96% of Users Leave App Tracking Disabled in iOS 14.5

Friday May 7, 2021 1:51 am PDT by
An early look at an ongoing analysis of Apple's App Tracking Transparency suggests that the vast majority of iPhone users are leaving app tracking disabled since the feature went live on April 26 with the release of iOS 14.5. According to the latest data from analytics firm Flurry, just 4% of iPhone users in the U.S. have actively chosen to opt into app tracking after updating their device...
fortnite apple logo 2

Epic CEO Tim Sweeney Admits App Store's 30% Cut Is Similar to Consoles, Would Have Accepted Special Deal With Apple

Tuesday May 4, 2021 1:54 pm PDT by
Apple's legal battle with Epic Games is continuing on, and during the second day of the trial, Epic Games' CEO Tim Sweeney continued his testimony against Apple. Sweeney was grilled by Apple's lawyers, and made several points seemingly favorable to Apple. In addition to mentioning how he prefers Apple's iPhone and values Apple's privacy policies that he's aiming to dismantle, Sweeney...
snapchat dark mode

Snapchat Rolls Out Dark Mode on iOS

Wednesday May 5, 2021 1:17 am PDT by
Nearly two years following the release of iOS and iPadOS 13, which included native, built-in, and systemwide dark mode, Snapchat, one of the world's most prominent social media networks, has finally rolled out a dark mode theme for iOS users. Snapchat began testing a dark mode theme of its app design late last year with a small group of iOS users. Now, Snapchat says that as of this week, it...
netflix sign up

Apple Discussed 'Punitive Measures' Against Netflix for Dropping In-App Purchases

Wednesday May 5, 2021 11:03 am PDT by
As the Epic Games v. Apple trial progresses into its third day, Apple's internal documents and communications with various companies are continuing to surface, giving us some insight into the dealings that Apple has had around the App Store. Back in December 2018, Netflix stopped offering in-app subscription options for new or resubscribing members and instead began requiring them to sign up ...
iphone 12 preorder purple

Apple Begins Transition to Randomized Serial Numbers With Purple iPhone 12

Wednesday May 5, 2021 9:17 am PDT by
MacRumors previously reported about Apple's plan to switch to randomized serial numbers for future products starting in early 2021, and this transition has now started with the new purple iPhone 12 model in multiple countries. With assistance from Aaron Zollo, host of the YouTube channel ZolloTech, we can confirm that the purple iPhone 12 released last month has a new 10-character serial...
airtag 1

AirTag Anti-Stalking Measures 'Just Aren't Sufficient' Says Washington Post Report

Wednesday May 5, 2021 6:03 pm PDT by
The safeguards that Apple built into AirTags to prevent them from being used to track someone "just aren't sufficient," The Washington Post's Geoffrey Fowler said today in a report investigating how AirTags can be used for covert stalking. Fowler planted an AirTag on himself and teamed up with a colleague to be pretend stalked, and he came to the conclusion that the AirTags are a "new means...
iphone 13 pro max dummy notch

iPhone 13 Pro Max Dummy Model Depicts Smaller Notch

Tuesday May 4, 2021 1:08 pm PDT by
Apple's iPhone 13 models are expected to feature a slimmed down notch, marking the first major change to the TrueDepth camera system since it was introduced in the 2017 iPhone X. We're still months away from the launch of the iPhone 13, but Lewis Hilsenteger of Unbox Therapy managed to get an iPhone 13 Pro Max dummy model that represents what we can expect from the new 2021 device. Dummy...
iPad Pro July Shipping

12.9-Inch iPad Pro Now Delivers as Late as Mid-July

Wednesday May 5, 2021 7:10 am PDT by
While the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro is set to launch in the second half of May, orders placed today are estimated for delivery as late as mid-July on Apple's online store in the United States — some two months later. The new 11-inch iPad Pro is faring better so far, with some configurations available for delivery in the last week of May. The new 12.9-inch iPad Pro features a Liquid Retina XDR ...