iOS 17.5.1: Apple fixes frustrating iPhone photo error

Did you update your iPhone to iOS 17.5 on Monday, May 13? Well, it’s time to do it again as iOS 17.5.1 has already been released. It’s a smaller update and has one function: fixing an issue with the main Photos app.

Updated May 23, first published May 20, 2024.

The reactions to the new update remain positive, if not helpful. The clearest explanation for what might have been going on (remember, Apple still hasn’t said what caused the problem, aside from describing it as database corruption, and there’s no mention of how it manifests itself) came from a user on Reddit. They said, “It’s quite simple. A database keeps track of the files. It was marked for deletion, but was deleted from the database before it was actually deleted, so it just stayed put. Repairing the database by scanning the file systems will bring it back because it now has no way of knowing if it was deleted or not.”

Another noted that the file may have been accidentally left standing while the database entry was being deleted. They said: “An engineer added a ‘workaround’ by having 17.5 scan for lost files in the system and add them back to the database so the user could decide what to do with them.” The same user wryly noted, “Someone actually thought that was a good idea.”

Whatever the cause, it seems increasingly likely that the problem has now been resolved and the consensus is that this was never a privacy issue. As YouTuber Brandon Butch noted, “There are no privacy, security or anything like that because this is all done on the device and with your iCloud account. No one but you has access to these photos.”

And it appears that in some cases photos were deleted from the Photos app, but not from the Files app, and that could have caused them to reappear, says Brandon Butch. That may not be the full story, however, as some users reported images that predated the Files app’s existence.

That said, many users will have been relieved that Apple released this update in record time, especially if they had deleted photos and sold their device, as happened to some users who saw their photos reappear on what is now someone else’s iPad used to be. The issue has affected more devices than just the iPhone, and updates have also been released for iPad and Apple TV.

As Victoria Song noted in The Verge, “A reasonable person would expect a deleted file to stay that way. “That’s why it’s understandable that people panicked last week when photos deleted years ago suddenly reappeared in their iPhone photo libraries.”

The issue of that publication has to do with the fact that Apple has not yet made any public comment on the matter, other than describing it as “rare” in the release notes for the update.

In that commentary, Apple describes that it is dealing with database corruption, and it appears that any zombie images that have been revived will have been images on the device, and not in the cloud.

As Song puts it, “Apple should really be commenting simply because it markets itself as a company that cares about your privacy.”

Which iPhones can run iOS 17.5.1?

If you have an iPhone Xs, iPhone Xs Max, or iPhone XR from 2018 or a newer iPhone, yours is compatible. That means the iPhone 11 series, iPhone 12 series, iPhone 13 series, iPhone 14 series and iPhone 15 series. This also includes second and third generation iPhone SE models.

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How to get it

You know the routine by now, but just in case: open the Settings app, click General, then Software Update. Here you can choose to download the new software now, which usually means it will be on your iPhone sooner. Choose Download and Install, and you’ll have plenty of gold soon enough.

What’s in the edition

This release addresses the bug that appeared in iOS 17.5, which Apple describes in the release notes as “a rare issue where photos with database corruption could reappear in the Photos library even if they were deleted.”

This has been a controversial topic, even if rare. It has led to images that in some cases had been deleted years ago reappearing when iOS 17.5 was installed, to the surprise and dismay of users. Apple still hasn’t revealed how this could have happened, although it’s probably as simple as how to delete images on an iPhone or iPad. Clicking Delete does not overwrite the data that makes up the image, just disconnects it.

Those data files would have been overwritten only when that part of the storage was needed, and could have been hidden until then. Something in iOS 17.5 brought them back to life.

This update, which also provides “major bug fixes,” as Apple puts it, aims to ensure that zombie photos are now a thing of the past.

This has been especially important for anyone who has given away or sold their iPhone and doesn’t want old photos to magically come back.

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