Australian consumer commission suing Apple over ‘Error 53’ iPhone failures

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is suing Apple over last year’s Error 53 problem that disabled iPhones which had undergone third-party repairs, The Wall Street Journal reports. The ACCC, which is an arm of the Australian government focused on consumer law and competition regulation, is alleging that Apple was in violation of Australian laws by “bricking” iPhone devices and refusing to subsequently repair them at no cost to customers on the basis of the devices having been previously serviced by third-party service providers. The regulator is seeking monetary penalties that could amount in up to $829,000 (A$1.1m) per breach if the courts find Apple liable.
When the Error 53 problem first appeared in Feb. 2016, Apple initially insisted that it was a security measure to protect the integrity of Touch ID security, which relies on a unique pairing between each Touch ID sensor and the internal Secure Enclave that stores fingerprints and Apple Pay credit and debit card data. Several people disputed Apple’s claims, however, since prior to iOS 9, replacing a Touch ID sensor simply disable the Touch ID features and Secure Enclave, leaving the iPhone otherwise operational. A little over a week after the Error 53 problem was first reported, Apple released a fix in iOS 9.2.1 that users could apply to affected iPhones over a USB transfer from iTunes in order to restore their iPhones to normal operation.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims notes that the lawsuit is looking to deal with the overall issue of third-party repairs, rather than just the Error 53 issue specifically, and that the ACCC is seeking to challenge Apple’s “overall policy of requiring customers to pay for repairs to defective components if their device was previously serviced by a third party.” Sims also notes that from the ACCC’s perspective, such practices are unique to Apple. The regulator’s position on the Error 53 lawsuit is that Australian consumer law requires that consumers are guaranteed that a product they purchase will be “reasonably fit” for its intended purpose, and that this guarantee is “not extinguished because a consumer has goods repaired by a third-party repairer.”

Notably, Australia is a year late to the game in addressing the Error 53 issue, as lawyers in both the U.S. and the U.K. threatened legal action when the problem first appeared in Feb. 2016; with a class action lawsuit last spring eventually thrown out by a U.S. judge. That said, the Australian lawsuit is the first being brought by a government agency over the issue, and may play out differently under Australian consumer protection laws.

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