What We’ve Learned Capturing iMessages from 50,000 iPhones

A message from Our Founder, Cheyenne Ehrlich :

Over the last 5 years, we’ve onboarded more than 50,000 iPhones on to our monitoring solution to capture iMessages and iPhone SMS text messages for oversight.

In this time, we’ve learned a lot. If you’re unfamiliar with our solution and how it works, we add software to a Mac with a user account connected to the same AppleID as the phone and capture the messages from there.

50,000 iPhones is a major milestone for us, and we thought this might be a good time to share our key learnings on this journey.

How It All Began

In 2015, I began to notice an explosion in the number of the worst kinds of outcomes between adults and children as a result of mobile devices. I began a lengthy research project involving numerous members of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force as part of an effort to study what roles smartphones played in these unthinkable and all too common situations.

The majority came from two things:

Children installing age-inappropriate apps (e.g 14 year old boys joining Grindr), and

Adults meeting children in real-life and then grooming with them for weeks or months via built-in phone messaging (iMessage and SMS).

To address #1, we built our own age and risk rating systems for apps and started notifying parents when children installed them. To address #2, we built message monitoring and focused on iMessage monitoring, as no one had tackled this problem.

The First 10,000 Devices Are the Hardest

First, my goal was to assemble a startup team of individuals with experience in building products that had been used by tens of millions of people at other startups. Once I had my team in place, we immediately began developing the platform and meticulously tested it on every iOS device that we could get our hands on.

Then, came the highly anticipated launch. However, despite our extensive testing efforts, we discovered that it only worked properly for less than half of our actual end users. Surprisingly, customers who set up identical devices with almost identical AppleID configurations would encounter varied results - it worked flawlessly for some, while others it didn’t at all.

This is because there are numerous undocumented issues related to iMessages being shared across multiple devices. I think we were lucky that our first audience was deeply passionate parents who were willing to spend hours on the phone with our engineering team, over periods of weeks, to get to the root of these various issues.

It wasn’t until we passed the 10,000 device mark that  the team and I were comfortable we’d found all these various edge cases.

I don’t see how anyone could ever build another platform like this without having such an enthusiastic, patient and large initial audience to help get them over the hurdle. This was a 24/7 project for our team for more than a year.

Getting Setup Is Just the Beginning

Once a device is connected, there are numerous instances (both documented and undocumented) that can cause it to stop receiving data. One example is if the end user changes their AppleID password. This will stop sending copies of the iMessages to the Mac for capture. How do you detect this? How do you get the new password? What do you do about the iMessages missed in the interim?

Solving these problems was the second phase of our journey. And again, without our large audience of passionate parents who were willing to be on the phone with our team of engineers to help troubleshoot these issues, I think we never would have made it.

Having lived it, I can tell you that if we’d started with enterprise customers first, they would have terminated either at the onboarding phase or in the first phase of capture.

We were lucky to have such a passionate audience to make our solution viable for enterprise. And having this audience has positioned us uniquely when we started selling to enterprises.

I’ve seen a few other companies claim to be able to do what we do, and occasionally they even sell their solution to someone, but eventually they seem to lose the customer and move along.

The Future

I am nervous to share this publicly, as I don’t want to jinx us, but in all the time we’ve been offering this capture solution to enterprises, we’ve never had one of them cancel the service. Ever.

But what's even more exciting is the significant growth our iMessage capture solution is now experiencing with FINRA and SEC regulated firms. It's incredible to witness how our platform, initially designed for passionate parents, has evolved to address the needs of these financial institutions and provide solutions for their specific challenges. The journey from our dedicated consumer audience to where we are now, delivering value to regulated firms, has been truly remarkable. I am proud of the platform our team has built and the opportunities it presents for regulated firms in the financial industry.