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What “Error 53” Means for the Future of Apple Repairs

In “Error 53 Will Kill Your iPhone and No One Knows Why,” (23 April 2015), I reported on the mysterious Error 53, which makes iPhones unusable, with no explanation from Apple. The good news is the community has now pinpointed the cause of Error 53, and it’s easy to avoid. The bad news is that the explanation makes the future of repairing your own Apple devices or using less expensive independent repair services even more dim.

The cause of Error 53 is a failure within the Touch ID sensor in the Home button of new iPhones. When you restore or update to iOS 9, it verifies that the Touch ID sensor is properly paired with the processor’s secure enclave. If iOS detects that the pairing has failed, which it might even if only the screen was replaced, Touch ID is disabled to protect the security of Apple Pay, and additional security checks display Error 53 and prevent further access.

Pairing the Touch ID hardware with the secure enclave is a clever security measure that ensures no one can access your fingerprint data or Apple Pay details by messing with Touch ID. The problem is that if an unauthorized repair center replaces your iPhone’s Home button, or even an associated part such as the screen, updating or restoring iOS 9 at some later date will render the iPhone useless. If you run into this situation, Apple says to “contact Apple Support about pricing information for out-of-warranty repairs.”

As Daring Fireball’s John Gruber pointed out, Apple could have handled Error 53 better. Instead of bricking the iPhone, iOS 9 should just disable Touch ID and Apple Pay, and explain to the user why it did so. In short, there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

We reached out to an Apple Authorized Service Provider who is familiar with the matter. While he confirmed that Apple’s requirement is a security feature, he also sees it as Apple pushing several agendas: selling AppleCare+, pushing customers into buying new phones after AppleCare+ expires, shutting out non-authorized repairers and suppliers, and shutting out fake devices built from knock-off parts. It turns out that all iPhone screen repairs have to go back to Apple for screen replacements; Apple has a machine that restores the pairing between the Touch ID sensor and the secure enclave.

We also spoke with a technician at a local independent repair shop, who was outraged that Apple was doing this to customers, particularly without warning. He said that his shop is now telling customers that they can either take iPhones that require this sort of repair to Apple or avoid updating to a new version of iOS 9. The tech was in fact performing just such a repair during the conversation, and the waiting customer said that he wouldn’t have updated the iPhone anyway, so that limitation didn’t bother him.

Apple’s handling of the situation has prompted the Seattle law firm PVCA to file a class action suit against Apple; if you’ve experienced Error 53, consider getting in touch with them.

The Bigger Repair Picture -- Apple’s discouragement of tinkerers is nothing new. The original Macs were notoriously hard to work on, requiring a long Torx screwdriver to open, and after Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company’s hardware became ever more difficult for outsiders to service.

A key example is Apple’s choice to switch from standard #00 Phillips screws to proprietary pentalobe screws during the iPhone 4’s lifecycle. In fact, if you brought an iPhone 4 with Phillips screws to an Apple Store for repairs, Apple would replace them with pentalobe screws.

The funky screws didn’t dissuade most DIYers, and it wasn’t hard to replace the battery in the iPhone 4, but Apple continued down the path of making future iPhones even harder to repair, as Adam Engst and I documented in “Replace a Dying iPhone 5 Battery” (5 March 2014) and “How to Replace a Cracked iPhone 5c Screen with Screasy” (24 July 2015).

Because of these difficulties, our advice since the release of the iPhone 5 has been to leave repairs to the professionals, even if you think you know what you’re doing. Unfortunately, even when going directly to Apple for repairs, things don’t always go smoothly, as I detailed in “Replace a Dying iPhone 5 Battery: Take Two” (28 August 2014). A couple of weeks after having my iPhone 5 battery replaced by Apple, the rear camera stopped working — I suspect due to a bad connection. Thankfully, it was time to upgrade anyway, so I never bothered trying to fix it.

So what’s the takeaway? Sadly, it seems that the era of repairing your own Apple devices continues to wane; if you can repair an Apple device yourself, it’s likely either because it’s an older model or a design accident. And as Apple struggles to maintain its revenue growth in the face of slowing sales, the company will try to extract money wherever it can, with repairs and service plans as another means to that goal (ask any auto dealer).

Here’s our advice for your future iPhone repair needs:

  • Whenever possible, have your Apple products serviced at an Apple Store or an Apple Authorized Service Provider.

  • If you’re at all hard on devices, and particularly for portable devices, think about buying AppleCare coverage to extend your warranty.

  • Consider the iPhone Upgrade Program (see “Comparing U.S. iPhone Plan Costs in a Contract-Free World,” 11 September 2015) for your next iPhone purchase, as it includes AppleCare+ and it lets you replace your iPhone every year.

  • If a non-authorized repair is unavoidable or vastly less expensive, be sure to keep your original parts in case there’s a problem. Historically, Apple won’t even talk to you if you have third-party parts installed in your iPhone. And if you do need an independent repair that might cause Error 53, well, avoid updating to iOS 9 or a newer version of iOS 9. Small bug fixes and security risks are better than a dead iPhone.

However, it’s not all bad news. In order to deal with unauthorized repairs, Apple has drastically reduced the price for out-of-warranty screen repairs. Without AppleCare+, the company now charges between $109 to $149 for a screen replacement, which isn’t much more than what you’d pay with AppleCare+. However, if you have AppleCare+, Apple will give you a loaner phone and likely move your repair up in its priority list.


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Comments about What “Error 53” Means for the Future of Apple Repairs
(Comments are closed.)

JohnB (SciFiOne)   2016-02-15 12:52
Maybe TidBITs should reconsider its standard OS upgrade policies.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-02-15 13:03
We adjust our advice all the time to deal with the changing technology landscape, and this will be just another variable. I wouldn't be surprised to see Apple change its policies in some way after this fuss, so we'll have to see how it settles out.
David Weintraub  2016-02-15 15:14
ApplePay needs to verify that no one is able to access the SecureElement in any way except as authorized. Any unauthorized changes in the iPhone could be an attempt to access the Secure Element. Simply turning off TouchID won't protect the Secure Element. The phone needs to be stopped from working. The tight physical security may be the reason why all of the banks worked with ApplePay from the very first day of its release.
Michel Hedley  2016-02-15 17:48
Australian consumers have good rights under the Australian Consumer Law Act. Facing this Act, Apple had to change its replacement policy, warranty cover and more in Australia. If an Apple product is not considered fit for purpose during the lifespan considered reasonable, then Apple will have to refund or replace. It doesn't matter if the warranty period has expired. Apple Australia is now obliged to notify consumers that they have rights under the Australian Consumer Law Act.

To some extent it is not worth getting AppleCare+.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the first Australian takes action under the Act against Apple re Error 53.
Ian Stavert  2016-02-15 18:44
The ACCC is already investigating Apple Australia for this Error 53 issue.
Karen Kirtland  2016-02-15 20:08
The makers of printers figured all this out years ago. People replace printers perhaps every two or three years, whereas they buy new ink usually every one to two months.

So the printer makers made the machines incredibly cheap, but charge a fortune for ink. In a neat twist, ink from your old machine rarely works in the new machine, so you have to - you guessed it - buy more ink.

Apple is just applying that logic to repair and replacement services. These are market decisions, however much we may feel cheated by them.

I don't like it either, but business is about making a profit. Apple does not deny use or repair of the device, but simply makes it harder and probably more expensive to maintain the product. It will be interesting to find out how this is interpreted in Australia.
Peter Muller  2016-02-15 23:37
Really disgusted with Apple's push to replace rather than fix. The power button on my wife's iPhone was nonfunctioning. Apple wanted $269 to fix it, which, coincidentally, was the same as the replacement cost for a new iPhone 5. An independent shop charged us $69 to fix it.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2016-02-16 07:30
Despite what John Gruber wrote, and what others believe, I think the question of whether bricking the iPhone for security reasons is necessary or not is still an open question. Gruber is smart and generally well informed, but he is not an engineer with expertise in cell phone design, as far as I know. That being the case, he is less than qualified to determine what is and is not necessary for the safety of the secure enclave on the iPhone.

I've read opinions both pro and con regarding Apple's solution, but all they are at this point is opinion. Apple may never provide a complete explanation of their reasons for killing violated iPhones, ironically, for security reasons.

The question remains, however, how Apple will deal with this problem. Free or discounted replacements are one possible option, and the amount of pressure applied by users and bad publicity in the tech press may affect their decisions in this regard. So keep the wheels squeaking. Lawsuits may not hurt, but they are unlikely to help anyone but the lawyers filing them. Apple is a big target and frivolous lawsuits are not uncommon.

One issue rarely brought up in this context is whether users who encounter Error 53 have backed up their data or not. Lost data is a problem as old as computers themselves and no one can reasonably be said to be ignorant of the risk. So, if they fail to back up their iPhones in the cloud—or on their Macs—they, not Apple, are responsible for the consequences. Apple provides security options; if users fail to take advantage of those options, that's on them.

The value of touch ID is that it enhances security on the iPhone. The problem with it is that, in order to make it effectively secure, Apple had to make changes in regard to repairing iPhones. This is not merely for financial reasons that benefit Apple, though they do seem to overcharge for repairs. There is no way for an iPhone to tell whether it is being repaired at the behest of the owner or by a hacker except through a feature like pairing the touch ID with the CPU. This is new technology and a period of adjustment is to be expected.

It's also the case that it is not uncommon for manufacturers of many products to insist that unauthorized repairs void a product's warrantee. This has often been the case with the Mac, for instance, though enforcement has been inconsistent over the years. If Apple is now cracking down on unauthorized iPhone repairs, this is hardly unprecedented. Though this begs the question of how a repair service provider may get authorized. Furthermore, authorization in one area may not apply to others.

Another factor generally overlooked in the arguments over Error 53 is how important security really is. Cell phones, even more than laptop computers, are frequently lost or stolen. Given how much personal information is stored on the average smart phone, this is not a trivial matter. Indeed, the argument can easily be made that until now cell phone security has been wholly inadequate. That is a problem touch ID was developed to remediate. But the touch ID system itself has to be secure if it is to mean anything. If any reasonably tech savvy bozo can hack your phone, then touch ID is all but useless.

Previously Apple has provided a means for users to locate and/or erase their phones remotely if it becomes necessary or advisable to do so. I've seen no numbers on how many people actually have those features enabled on their phones, but I'll hazard a guess that it's far from a majority of users. How many more actually back up their data so that they can restore it if something untoward happens to their phones? Hence, touch ID, and now hardened touch ID.

Apple could and should have done a better job informing people of these enhanced security measures, and they deserve all the criticism and bad publicity they get for not doing so. But the necessity for hardening touch ID is not remotely arguable. As for how necessary Apple's extreme measures are, that may remain in dispute indefinitely if Apple chooses not to explain them further. It's up to Apple how hard a hit they are willing to take on the subject—and how important it is to keep the information confidential. I'd say John Gruber no more than I knows the answer to those questions.
asm732  2016-02-16 10:41
Appreciate this reasoned response to the presented issues.
Scrannel  2016-02-16 22:12
There was a cell phone Security Law recently passed in California. However, to lamely believe Apple's bricking phones is based on anything but greed is naïve. You honestly don't think they know exactly what they are doing? In fact this law states that if a cell phone is rendered inoperable because of security credentials violations it MUST BE REVERSABLE. Thus "Apple's extreme measures..." are quite simply illegal.
Joseph Haefeli  2016-02-16 09:50
"Error 53" is adding fuel to the Right to Repair movement, now trudging through a number of state legislatures:
Scrannel  2016-02-16 22:01
Apple's action is a violation of the Sherman Anti-trust Act and is a restraint of trade. But Apple has been in court before on this.
stephenhobbs  2016-02-17 07:25
Was disconcerted to read your report as I recently had my 6+ screen replaced by iCracked her in the UK. Don't want a £700 brick. They responded:

".. our screen replacement will not cause the Error-53. The iTunes Error-53 means the home button is not detected or not original or not Working. The Touch ID is unique for each devices. Once the home button is replaced or if it was damaged, the bio-metric scanner will not work and upgrading iOS is not possible as it will brick the device. Our iTechs can now fix this issue by replacing the flex cable connecting to it. So, if you have experienced this issue after the repair, you can just contact your local iTech again to fix your device. If you need further assistance, please let us know. Have a great day!

I hope they're right :-)
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-02-17 08:54
From what I've heard from Apple-authorized techs, you could still be at risk if you install iOS 9 or any update to iOS 9. So, you might want to take that into account, or check with iCracked to see what they'll do for you if they're wrong.