The Guardian’s Click-Baity Article on the ‘Error 53’ Which Bricks iPhones →


Miles Brignall, for Guardian Money, details the problems that iPhone users have been having after updating to iOS 9 with ‘error 53’, which results in bricked phones:

Thousands of iPhone 6 users claim they have been left holding almost worthless phones because Apple’s latest operating system permanently disables the handset if it detects that a repair has been carried out by a non-Apple technician.

Technically, a phone which is worth 50% of its original value (see below), is not ‘worthless’.

(…) The issue appears to affect handsets where the home button, which has touch ID fingerprint recognition built-in, has been repaired by a “non-official” company or individual. It has also reportedly affected customers whose phone has been damaged but who have been able to carry on using it without the need for a repair.

Ahh… so it concerns Touch ID — the thingamajig which reads fingerprints — one of the few elements of the iPhone which is extremely important for privacy reasons.

But the problem only comes to light when the latest version of Apple’s iPhone software, iOS 9, is installed. Indeed, the phone may have been working perfectly for weeks or months since a repair or being damaged.

An update to iOS 9 seems to be the cause of the ‘error 53’, which bricks the iPhones.

After installation a growing number of people have watched in horror as their phone, which may well have cost them £500-plus, is rendered useless. Any photos or other data held on the handset is lost – and irretrievable.

I’m sure they watched the whole iOS update process in horror, knowing that it will brick their phone. Enough with the drama already.

Also, a properly configured iPhone (if the user bothered to read the on-screen information when they first started configuring it) has all of its data backed up to iCloud every night (this usually happens at night, when the phone is charging). It their fault if they didn’t bother backing everything up (it’s automatic once an iCloud account is created). Would you go blaming Apple if you lost your phone, making your data ‘irretrievable’? Or if someone stole it? No.

Tech experts claim Apple knows all about the problem but has done nothing to warn users that their phone will be “bricked” (ie, rendered as technologically useful as a brick) if they install the iOS upgrade.

I assume this kind of information is in the EULA/TOS/warranty — see section 1.7 here.

Freelance photographer and self-confessed Apple addict Antonio Olmos says this happened to his phone a few weeks ago after he upgraded his software. Olmos had previously had his handset repaired while on an assignment for the Guardian in Macedonia. “I was in the Balkans covering the refugee crisis in September when I dropped my phone. Because I desperately needed it for work I got it fixed at a local shop, as there are no Apple stores in Macedonia. They repaired the screen and home button, and it worked perfectly.”

He says he thought no more about it, until he was sent the standard notification by Apple inviting him to install the latest software. He accepted the upgrade, but within seconds the phone was displaying “error 53” and was, in effect, dead.

What Antonio describes seem to be a new set of rules in iOS 9, which make sure that the Touch ID part of it is indeed safe to use — if not, the phone is ‘bricked’.

When Olmos, who says he has spent thousands of pounds on Apple products over the years, took it to an Apple store in London, staff told him there was nothing they could do, and that his phone was now junk. He had to pay £270 for a replacement and is furious.

My friend dropped her iPhone once and was also asked to pay 50% of the price of a new iPhone to receive a brand new one — she was also ‘furious’. At herself though.

“The whole thing is extraordinary. How can a company deliberately make their own products useless with an upgrade and not warn their own customers about it? Outside of the big industrialised nations, Apple stores are few and far between, and damaged phones can only be brought back to life by small third-party repairers.

Imagine what would happen if repair shops started replacing the Touch ID buttons with fake ones, which stole the fingerprints and data of the owners. I assume someone would write a ‘Apple fails to protect users’ privacy’ article.

Could Apple’s move, which appears to be designed to squeeze out independent repairers, contravene competition rules? Car manufacturers, for example, are not allowed to insist that buyers only get their car serviced by them.

I am pretty sure it would at the least it would void all warranties if a buyer changed out any of the car’s mechanical systems, which are designed to keep the driver and passengers safe, for an unauthorised third-party system, eg. ESP, ABS, etc.

A spokeswoman for Apple told Money (get ready for a jargon overload): “We protect fingerprint data using a secure enclave, which is uniquely paired to the touch ID sensor. When iPhone is serviced by an authorised 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.”

She adds: “When an iPhone is serviced by an unauthorised 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 … If a customer encounters an unrecoverable error 53, we recommend contacting Apple support.”

I’m glad Apple is verifying if the Touch ID assembly in my iPhone is authentic and not tampered with. My fingerprints, which are stored in the secure enclave, are used to access my bank accounts and many other (slightly less sensitive) forms of data. Other people also use Touch ID for Apple Pay, which is not yet available over here. I do not want someone to hack me were I to stupidly replace the Touch ID sensor, cable, and what-not, with an unauthorised part. My data is worth much, much more than 50% of the price a new iPhone. That’s why I back it up every day. Or rather, my iPhone does that for me.

I’m quite disappointed with The Guardian deciding to run this article, which is unnecessarily sarcastic, click-baity and misguided. The author obviously doesn’t understand how Touch ID works, why its hardware implementation is so important, and how the whole system is securely integrated with the hardware, designed to keep the users’ fingerprints and data safe.

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