Apple’s iPhone Error 53

Any experts in European Union competition law out there? Because I have a feeling that apple might just have opened itself to a whole world of pain:

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.

Relatively few people outside the tech world are aware of the so-called “error 53” problem, but if it happens to you you’ll know about it. And according to one specialist journalist, it “will kill your iPhone”.

Now, there’s special rules for the auto industry but as far as I can see insisting that a product only be repaired by the company itself, insisting that third parties do not do so, is verboeten. You can invalidate warranties, fine, but you cannot just brick a product because it has been repaired by someone else.

But that’s what Apple is doing:

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 can imagine that running right into the brick wall of EU competition policy. 10% of global turnover style fines. But is there anyone who actually knows this area of law?

43 thoughts on “Apple’s iPhone Error 53”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    Yet interestingly if someone steals your phone all of a sudden there is very little they can do. I would have thought that was a lot easier to detect.

    Silicon Valley is moving towards renting stuff, not selling it. It looks like this is Microsoft’s new model. So Apple seems edging towards blurring the lines between ownership and a lease. At some point we will see what their customers think. Already I think it is outrageous that Mickey Mouse is never going to come out of copyright and absurd that I cannot play a British DVD in America. We will see if more and more juries agree.

  2. Yet interestingly if someone steals your phone all of a sudden there is very little they can do.

    They? No, there is not a lot Apple can do. But there is a reasonable amount your airtime provider can do and quite a lot you can do, including brick the phone, over the “Find your Phone” feature on iCloud.

  3. 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.

    Ah yes. “It’s for your own protection.” How many times does this line get rolled out when a customer is being given the run-around or fucked over by a company?

  4. But there is a reasonable amount your airtime provider can do and quite a lot you can do, including brick the phone, over the “Find your Phone” feature on iCloud.

    When I was in Nigeria I stumbled ratarsed out of a club which was new, and so badly run, and so hadn’t yet figured out that allowing a hundred street urchins to gather outside and make customers walk 50m to their cars is not a good idea. Anyway, some very sneaky hands lifted me of my iPhone. Later on I used the “Find Your Phone” feature on the iPad but chose to reset the phone, as I didn’t want some Nigerian cracking the code and helping themselves to all the information. But when I discussed this later with my Nigerian colleagues, they told me I should have called the police who, for a small fee, would have happily driven into the slum and beaten the living shit out of its new owner in the course of recovering it for you.

  5. Ah yes. “It’s for your own protection.”

    The basic concept – turning off Touch ID (and Apple Pay, and the links to Amazon and PayPal) if the sensor is detected as having been changed by a non-approved repairer – is sound.

    Doing it at upgrade or restore seems a bit lax – I would expect this sort of check to be done at least on every power-on.

    However, bricking the phone completely rather than merely restricting the pay functionality seems more than a little excessive. It makes me wonder if there is something complicated in the agreements with the card clubs for Apple Pay that makes this the “legally sensible” (in so far as that isn’t an oxymoron) thing to do?

  6. This is Apple being Apple. The fun, for masochists, will be watching their lawyer try to get out of the fines.

  7. Since I’m not into the lifestyle I may have gotten the two terms confused. I could have swore sadists were the ones that loved to punish while masochists enjoyed being punished. The first internet definition agrees but we all know how often the internet is wrong.

  8. To be honest, I’m more with Apple on this one. The touchID sensor can be fooled of course and it’s hardly bank grade hardware, but there’s plenty of equipment like crypto gear that do this sort of stuff by design: FIPS140 level3 mandates all encryption keys to be wiped if there is physical breach of a device perimeter, which applied to an iPhone means all that encrypted flash becomes unreadable.

  9. FIPS140 level3 mandates all encryption keys to be wiped if there is physical breach of a device perimeter, which applied to an iPhone means all that encrypted flash becomes unreadable.

    But FIPS 140 Level 3 is a very significantly higher grade of compliance than the FIPS140-2 Level 1 that Apple has had its iOS crypto modules certified to.

  10. @Rupert – a very valid concern if you were selecting a phone for use by GCHQ. But since 99% of owners will be using it for unencrypted texts, emails and playing Candy Crush, I’m not sure it’s all that relevant.

  11. If you’ve bought into the Apple thing, aren’t you supposed to either throw it out or take it to the “Genius bar” when something goes wrong to preserve whatever magic unicorn hair is inside it? If you’re savvy enough and cheap enough to know about 3rd party repairs, why aren’t you using Android?

  12. I think I realized why Apple never thought this would be a problem. My guess is that Apple just assumed no one would bother to fix anything and would just buy new tat. In that case it doesn’t make sense for Apple to test replacement parts.

    Last week my 2nd monitor went and I decided to pop it open to see if I could fix it. Once the cover was off I found that a single 2200µF 10V capacitor had blown. Since this is easy to replace I decided to find a local shop that had it in stock. After calling the usual suspects to find out they were either out of business or selling things like cell phones I decided to call a repair shop. Once again these were almost all out of business. I ended up ordering 5 capacitors, might as well swap them all out while I have the soldiering iron out, for $13.08, $9.95 of which was shipping. I could have spent $200 on a new monitor but then I would lose out on the fun of fixing the old one.

    The lesson I learned is how much life can suck when you can’t get replacement parts. I am now wondering about the stories of Soviet tractors and the lack of parts. How long will it be until I just can’t buy what I need to fix my own equipment?

  13. Point proven. Apple shouldn’t have to allow their phones to be repaired because no one would ever do that.

  14. As someone working in computer security for nearly two decades, I’m with Apple on this. The fingerprint sensor is autonomous and decides by itself whether the presented fingerprint matches that previously configured, and sends a cryptographically-secure “yes” or “no” to the motherboard. If just anyone was allowed to link a new fingerprint sensor to the motherboard, then they could link a device that always said “yes” and the security would be defeated. If, alternatively, the fingerprint sensor was dumb, and just sent details of the fingerprint to the motherboard for iOS running on the main CPU to examine, those transmissions could be intercepted by a device, recorded and replayed, or conceivably, brute-forced.

    Earlier versions of iOS apparently didn’t check the sensor was properly paired and working properly as regularly and/or thoroughly as the new version.

  15. Seriously, is there anyone dumb enough to think the fingerprint ID or passcode is there to prevent anyone other than a casual snooper, wife, or child gaining access? Are people really storing sensitive data on their phone and relying on a 4-digit PIN code to keep the bad guys out? Shit, when my phone got stolen in Nigeria I assumed they’d be past the code within 24 hours, which is why I wiped it rather than tried to find it.

  16. ” “It’s for your own protection.” How many times does this line get rolled out when a customer is being given the run-around or fucked over by a company?”
    Brings to mind a conversation with a branch manager of my UK bank over them blocking transactions.
    Verbatim:
    “Look asshole, I regard security as being to ensure I get access to my money when I need it. As far as I’m concerned there’s not the slightest difference between you denying me my money & a thief denying me my money. It’s my money & I want it. Stop stealing my money or I’ll take it somewhere more secure”:

  17. The fingerprint sensor is autonomous and decides by itself whether the presented fingerprint matches that previously configured, and sends a cryptographically-secure “yes” or “no” to the motherboard.

    I understand this is why you need to tap in your code after restarting.

  18. @TimN
    “Seriously, is there anyone dumb enough to think the fingerprint ID or passcode is there to prevent anyone other than a casual snooper, wife, or child gaining access? ”
    Yup. Anyone bought an iPhone, at a guess.

  19. @TimN
    That was really verbatim.
    I got the “I don’t have to listen to abuse”, line. And replied “Then stop stealing my money or you’ll find out what happens when i get annoyed.”

  20. @Surreptitious Evil and @Chris Miller: agreed. I’m just thinking of the way in which a company is liable to think, eg that software upgrades are a lot easier than hardware upgrades. If Apple suddenly require a higher level of compliance than previously, they can release an iOS upgrade only. I

  21. The reported material says that the fingerprint sensor is disabled if it looks as though it’s been played with.

    The phone continues to work fine; it makes calls, sends happy txt messages, browses the internet for pictures of Beyonce etc etc etc – it’s just that you have to validate that it’s you by typing in your burdensome 4-digit passcode. The damn thing isn’t even remotely ‘bricked’.

  22. Bloke in Costa Rica

    Tim N: you use the Touch ID so that you don’t have a four digit passcode. Instead you have a much longer code (e.g. 18 characters like mine) which you only have to reintroduce every few days or so. Touch ID is a wonderful thing and it makes me sad on their behalf to see people using Android peasant phones without it. It’s certainly the case that Apple should not have introduced this policy change unannounced, but the basic idea is good.

  23. Alex B:

    ” If just anyone was allowed to link a new fingerprint sensor to the motherboard, then they could link a device that always said “yes” and the security would be defeated.”

    Well, sure. But it’s my bloody phone. Why shouldn’t I be able to replace the fingerprint sensor with an “always yes” box, or a cock-print sensor, or any other kind of device I choose. What business is it of Apple’s?

  24. But it’s my bloody phone. Why shouldn’t I be able to replace the fingerprint sensor with an “always yes” box, or a cock-print sensor, or any other kind of device I choose. What business is it of Apple’s

    Because of Apple Pay and the Payment Cards Industry Security Standards Council. The later being the fault of the USian tendency to pepper pot lawsuits about at the slightest provocation.

  25. I’m just thinking of the way in which a company is liable to think, eg that software upgrades are a lot easier than hardware upgrades. If Apple suddenly require a higher level of compliance than previously, they can release an iOS upgrade only

    It is very very hard to move up the FIPS 140-2 stack without hardware changes. You can just about manage Level 1 to Level 2 but even that requires significant kernel changes (and can’t be done on a single user device like current iPhones.)

  26. Hmmm.

    Well, since my iPhone has my debit and credit card details on it, fast sign-ins to the iTunes, App, and iBooks Stores, as well as stored logins to Amazon, Dropbox, etc., I’m with Apple on this one.

    But then again, because my phone has all of this access to highly sensitive and secure financial data, I wouldn’t be stupid enough to get it repaired by anyone other than an authorised Apple Retailer (or, preferably, Apple themselves).

    I’m sure that nice Mr Ahmed down at the “we can unlock any-phone!” place is a nice chap—but he does claim to be able to unlock any phone and so I am going to treat his offer of a cheap repair with a certain amount of scepticism.

    DK

  27. Bloke in Costa Rica

    That’s how Apple Pay works, Peter. It’s the way all NFC payment systems work. It could hardly be otherwise, could it?

  28. But you might not be using Apple Pay, or the Touch ID. You might have nothing on your phone other than pictures of cats and messages about what time to meet at the movies. So you correctly assess the risk of using a cheap repairer as zero. But Apple bricks the phone anyway. Disable Touch ID and Apple Pay and dump the credit card/sign in details I could understand.

    I’m not sure what this achieves anyway. It only happens when you upgrade the OS. How does that help? The potential tampering, theft of details, or making illicit payments with your phone happened weeks ago. Turning your phone into an inanimate lump of plastic after the fact doesn’t change anything.

    Australian customers have been told that once this has happened there is nothing that can be done to restore the phone to life, even as a phone. I find that very hard to believe.

  29. Thinking about it, it’s even easier than that. Just reject the Touch ID as an unpaired device and don’t allow the authentication. Then any and all encrypted info is still protected, right? The thief can still make phone calls and burn through your data allowance, but your credit card details are protected.

    Unless Apple are saying their encryption is so weak it can be broken by a guy on a street corner.

    Nope, this is punishing their customers for straying from the One True Path.

  30. Sam –

    But it’s my bloody phone. Why shouldn’t I be able to replace the fingerprint sensor with an “always yes” box, or a cock-print sensor, or any other kind of device I choose. What business is it of Apple’s?

    In the abstract, I support that philosophy. In the real world, though, it’d require a number of things. Firstly, for you to indemnify Apple in case your modded device is later abused by someone else to access your secure data. Secondly, if you resold the device to an unknowing third party, an agreement to make them understand that they weren’t buying an unmodified device, but one with security vulnerabilities not present in the original. And thirdly, just in case, probably to scrub all trace of the Apple brand from the device before any such resale.

    In practice, those conditions might be very hard to meet. And of course, there’s nothing but some hard maths from stopping you from working out how to do it. But don’t expect Apple to make it easy.

    Ultimately, Apple devices are not meant for tinkering, and that’s where much of their ease-of-use comes from – by entirely ignoring swathes of minority use cases. If you don’t like that deal, buy something else and learn how to use it and modify it.

  31. That’s rubbish Alex B. No one is modifying anything, they’re just getting it fixed at less than the factory charge, then their phone gets bricked for no good reason.This is not a case of I was fiddling with it and broke it.

    Secondly, if you resold the device to an unknowing third party, an agreement to make them understand that they weren’t buying an unmodified device, but one with security vulnerabilities not present in the original.

    That sounds like what we would call a caveat, something hitherto unheard of in consumer electronics (restrictions for servicing or on-sale have been around before, but rarely in a retail environment). If Apple want to sell their stuff on a lease agreement, with restrictions as to what you can do with the hardware, they can go right ahead. Until then, they’re being arseholes. And they are totally in the wrong.

  32. Let’s say I buy a BMW (fat chance, but just for the sake of argument). I get it serviced regularly, keep all records, and after a few years I decide to sell it on to some poor benighted punter who doesn’t realise what an overpriced piece of shit it is. Hey, this is a great analogy!

    But I’ve had work done on the car, sports exhaust say. Perfectly legal, but not original. So I should send a letter to BMW indemnifying them, make an agreement with the buyer that they understand the car has been compromised, and scrub all traces of the brand from the car. Presumably with an angle grinder.

  33. Presumably though, with your BMW you’d get a higher second hand price if you can show a full service history from BMW-approved service centres.

    So your analogy actually supports Alex B’s position: people value manufacturer-serviced gear more highly than stuff that’s been tweaked by dodgy back street outfits. Whether it’s over priced phones or over priced cars. It’s just that they’ve had a lot more experience being wary of second hand cars than second hand phones, and don’t yet know the questions to be asking when buying the latter.

  34. Even if Apple are right, that only justifies disabling the phone, with an official supplier able to re-enable once identification is verified.

    Bricking the phone with total loss of data is completely unacceptable.

    But what do I care, I stopped buying Apple years ago for very similar reasons.

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