Spencer Dailey, on accessing iMessage backups:
Many iPhone owners have iMessages from years ago that they can’t access. For example, my wife and I simply want to read the first few messages that we exchanged in 2017, but we can’t. A friend of mine recently had to prove she had a relationship with someone for US immigration services, and she was able to quickly download an easily searchable file containing all messages without using a 3rd-party tool in her efforts to do so. But she doesn’t use iMessage, she uses another chat app.
At last check I had about 40GB of iMessage backups in my family iCloud storage. I’d never thought about actually accessing any of this data and finding old messages. I’ve searched my iMessage archive before, but have never thought about the issues I’d have trying to actually just view a chronological history of this stored data.
The fact I’ve never had a need to do it is, obviously, why it’s never come to mind but it has to be a crappy situation for those that do actually need it. I can imagine a common use-case for trying this in the first place is after a loved one passes away, which is not a time you’re going to want to be messing around with phones crashing and the like when you may just want to read some comforting words. Hopefully this is something Apple will address in the future.
One thing I thought may be a, slightly convoluted, option was to go to privacy.apple.com, first implemented to appease GDPR rules, and request an extract of your iMessage data. This, however, isn’t possible, as iMessages are not available as part of this export. I will assume that it’s because of encryption. There is an option, apparently, to view the archive database on a Mac, but that’s not going to be viable to many.
Long story short, I suppose, try not to retain anything too important to you in your iMessage backup, because it may be a painful experience to ever see it again!
I have a challenge for you. Think about someone you love or care about very much and write them an email, or letter. Something they can keep. Don’t be remembered by a set of iMessages stuck in an iCloud backup prison limbo.