Error 53 is Apple's way of saying 'You're fixing it wrong'

Really unfair and probably unnecessary.

It’s unfair and customers weren’t made aware of it when they purchased their iPhones. What am I talking about? Apple’s sudden move to brick people’s iPhones if they get them fixed by unofficial repair shops.

Fair warning

As regular readers know I think highly of Apple, but this move is wrong. What the company has done is introduce a new software procedure that will permanently disable iPhones during the software update process if it detects a repair has been carried out by a non-Apple technician.

I don’t entirely buy it – why has this not been a problem until now? Why weren’t customers warned of this risk? To make matters worse, this new software check will even impact iPhones that have been working perfectly for months since they were repaired.

This means the company is retrospectively changing the rules of iPhone repair and that’s clearly inappropriate. Millions of us have been getting our smartphones repaired at small repair shops for years, partly in response to Apple’s significantly higher repair fees.

Not only this but Apple has neither the staff nor geographical distribution to fix everyone’s iPhone if we all needed to replace our display tomorrow. The company would be completely unable to fix everyone’s iPhone in an hour, like small local repair shops do each day. Apple’s customers need this convenience.

Apple says

Apple is attempting to justify this decision by saying it is necessary to protect TouchID security:

“We protect fingerprint data using a secure enclave, which is uniquely paired to the Touch ID sensor. When iPhone is serviced by an authorized Apple Service Provider or Apple Retail Store for changes that affect the Touch ID sensor, the pairing is re-validated. This check ensures the device and the iOS features related to Touch ID remain secure.  Without this unique pairing, a malicious Touch ID sensor could be substituted, thereby gaining access to the secure enclave.  When iOS detects that the pairing fails, Touch ID including Apple Pay is disabled so the device remains secure.  For more information on the secure enclave and Touch ID security see:

“When iPhone is serviced by an unauthorized repair provider, faulty screens or other invalid components that affect the Touch ID sensor could cause the check to fail if the pairing cannot be validated.  With a subsequent update or restore, additional security checks result in an Error 53 being displayed.  This is detailed in this Apple support article: As the article states, if a customer encounters an unrecoverable Error 53, we recommend contacting Apple Support.”

A better way

I appreciate the need to protect the secure enclave and Touch ID sensor from being accessed by an unauthorized third party, but I don’t think Apple had to adopt such a hard and inflexible approach.

A much better course (fairer on all concerned) would be to disable TouchID and its services in the event of this so-called "pairing fail," allowing users to use their iPhones with their passcode, but preventing use of biometrically protected services. Instead, Apple is effectively bricking people’s devices without warning with the unspoken admonishment that they have been "repairing them wrong."

Not only this, but even though Apple is directing those who discover Error 53 to its support page, it seems it is then insisting they purchase a new device, because using non-Apple repair stores void the warranty.

However in a wider context the company has not made sufficient effort to warn consumers of its intentions, it has not made people purchasing a new iPhone aware of the pitfall, it has not warned them how closely it is protecting devices against unofficial repairs and customers who have recently got their iPhone fixed have been given no warning at all.

This lack of communication means Apple’s customers have not been able to take steps to prepare themselves for the problem in the event they are using an iPhone repaired by an independent repair shop, and now own a highly expensive brick.

Apple should figure out a better way to protect TouchID than bricking customer’s phones without fair warning. That Apple support document uploaded quietly on December 21 does not to my mind represent a broad enough attempt to warn a billion iOS users of this new restriction, which I think first began to surface in late December.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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