What’s the story with Error 53?

Anthony Caruana
8 February, 2016
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Over the last few days a significant issue has been exposed. It seems that iPhones that have been exposed to two conditions are becoming ‘bricked’ – or rendered completely unresponsive and unrecoverable.

The two conditions that can create the Error 53 issue are running recent versions of iOS and the Touch ID sensor being ‘tampered’ with in some way.

I use the word ‘tamper’ with some reservations. In all the cases I’ve been able to read about, the affected party’s iPhone has suffered some type of damage and been repaired by an unauthorised repairer. You’ve all seen these repairers, most likely in a local shopping centre in a kiosk or small store offering replacement screens.

When the screen is replaced, the button on the front face of the iPhone is disassembled or, in some cases, replaced.

According to Kyle Wiens, head of electronics-repair site iFixit.com, independent repairers sometimes replace the fingerprint sensor or its small cable when repairing broken screens or home buttons on iPhones.

Apple says this is a protective measure to ensure the integrity of the iPhone’s security is maintained. But for users who don’t have access to Authorised Apple Repairers this a big problem.

The Guardian reports that a freelance photographer struck the error while on assignment in the Balkans and needed his phone urgently repaired. Then, when his phone received a later iOS update, he struck the Error 53 message and found his phone unusable.

Two sides to the argument

Those who believe Apple is acting poorly say we ought to have the right to choose repair services and not have our devices bricked though the actions of a repair service. Especially when authorised repairers aren’t easily found. We’re spoiled here in Australia where we have several Apple Stores and a number of independent authorised repair services.

Also, Apple’s repair services are quite expensive relative to smaller operators.

Then there’s the issue of information. Until this issue hit the news, I’m not sure there was anyone outside Apple who knew this could happen when having an iPhone or iPad with a Touch ID sensor repaired.

In other words, access to authorised repairers can be challenging, Apple’s costs are much higher and no one knew this risk when using a third party repair service.

Apple’s argument is simple. The Touch ID sensor (and the other hardware and software it works with) are part of a complex security system. If someone switches out a part, it could be possible to compromise the system.

It’s important to understand that the issue isn’t likely to be a rogue repairer installing dodgy sensors. The bigger risk comes from a tainted supply chain that pushes thousands of tainted sensors into the market.

As far as I’ve read, none of the commentators on this issue have remembered that Apple is now a major player in the payments business and the Touch ID sensor, Secure Element chip and their software are a tightly controlled system.

Compromising any part of that system would result in a major problem for Apple – far bigger that today’s anger over Error 53.

Apple is at fault – but not how you expect

Apple has made a misstep with the Error 53 incident.

Apple’s mistake is a lack of clear communication early on.

If Apple had stated clearly that repairs that ‘tamper’ with the Touch ID system in any way could result in the iPhone or iPad being bricked then, I suspect, there would have less outrage. Sure, people would be disgruntled, but they would be able to make informed decisions when choosing repair services.

Thinking ahead

At the moment, Apple seems to be in a defensive mode with this issue.

I think that’s a mistake.

I spend a lot of time covering information security for some other publications. And I’ve spoken to a lot of people on both sides of the security fence – those in the protection business and those connected to the other side.

Here’s what I hear. Apple’s systems are not unbreakable. It’s possible as we saw with the recent XcodeGhost hack for Apple’s supply chain to be tainted. Malware was injected into pirated versions of X-Code and used to create infected iOS apps that were distributed through the App Store in some parts of the world.

However, the bad guys see other mobile platforms, particularly Android, as a better target as it has massive market penetration and is far more open.

Apple ought to be standing up with this issue and using it as an example of how it is protecting your personal data – in particular your credit card and payments information.

11 Comments

11 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. huh says:

    I didn’t expect Macworld to be anything but blinded by bias. Fact is that this isn’t to secure payment details it’s simply to stop people using third party repair services under threat of disabling your device if you do. Ssimply monopolistic anti-competitive bs. If it as just about security then disaabling the Apple past and print f cognition would have accomplished that. Disabling people’s phones and just saying we can sell you a news one is disgusting

  2. Macworld Australia Staff says:

    Blinded by bias? That’s a little harsh. I’d prefer to see the device security and owners both protected from fraud and from unnecessarily high repair costs. Can you suggest a way for that to happen?

  3. Mary says:

    Huh you are talking nonsense…
    So we have iPhones which we are proud are secure enough to use for banking and then we go to a shadowy repair shop and have the fingerprint button wiring interfered with and then try to blame Apple. That is the bs…… I appreciate the security of my iPhone and that is why I wouldn’t say thank you for an Android or MS or Blackberry phone.

  4. Rob Hansen says:

    So if I get my car serviced by an unauthorised repairer, the engine will be disabled by the car company????

  5. Firitia says:

    Is it always from a repair? Today I had someone with an iphone 6 which also produced error 53. The owner swore by high and low that the device was never repaired and never opened up. Indeed no traces of any maltreatment were visible.

  6. udi . says:

    Apple should have a way to unbrick those phones and should not charge an arm and a leg for repair. I recently called them about a loose lightening connector in my phone (probably a dry solder joint) so that charging works intermittently. They told me about their express replacement service which sounded great, until they quoted me over $1100 to replace my iphone5. i had to ask the guy to repeat himself, while I shook my head in disbelief. Given that the touch id thing is more of a gimmick for most people and that Apple pay is of more benefit to Apple than to its customers, perhaps if they can’t provide a repairable product, they should scrap the feature altogether. better to have to enter a pin, than to risk losing your phone entirely.

  7. bruce prior says:

    I’m with”huh” (as well as “Doh”)
    When a company becomes as arrogant as Apple is now, the decline will start.
    I DEEPLY suspicious about being dictated to regarding the companies I use for repair. I truly believe it is crap regarding user security. More like:
    “I know let’s them in with a bespoke lump of hardware so that the punters are tied in to us”
    After all they have done it with:
    1. a usb cable that can only be used on a single apple device;
    2. The careful and judicious use of reshaping the mains plug so it only fits some (one?) power-pack
    FFS will they ever stop with the petty pathetic constraints?
    Bottom line & shareholder value is the only care of apple. NOT it’s customers.
    BTW I am old enough to have seen the demise of (at least) two companies, brought down by arrogance. One being IBM. Another (about to happen) is Micro$oft. Apple is following the rat-pack. I regret that apple is no longer “value for money” as far as I am concerned
    avaniceday
    Bruce P

  8. Peter says:

    “We’re spoiled here in Australia where we have several Apple Stores and a number of independent authorised repair services” – but how many in country towns? Admittedly getting any high tech repair service in the bush can be a problem, but being locked-in to a particular provider only compounds this problem.

  9. AleksT says:

    I got the error even though my iPhone5c had never been in for repair as I have never had a problem with it. Luckily Apple replaced it as is was still under warranty, but…..now it makes me think as I had purchased it from a major national music and entertainment store at a REALLY good price, so i purchased two, where did they get them from as it was sold to me as new!

  10. Macworld Australia Staff says:

    There have been some cases like yours. I suspect you’ll need to visit an Apple Store or your reseller to state your case for a replacement.

  11. Alan Parker says:

    Apple says that this is a “secirity” measure, but if that’s the case, why is the WHOLE phone bricked? If it really is just a security measure, then surely that would mean that the fingerprint feature would be de-activated. Why go overboard and kill the whole phone?

    Macworld – get real, your attitude is completely biased – Apple can do no wrong in your eyes. Maybe you’re aware that any critism on your behalf would see your jouranlists being cut-off by Apple.

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