A new report from The Guardian notes that thousands of iPhone 6 users are claiming to have been left holding useless iPhones as a result of repairs carried out by non-Apple authorized technicians. According to the report, users who previously had iPhone 6 models repaired at unauthorized third-party service centers have encountered an “Error 53” when updating to iOS 9, leaving their devices locked in a completely unusable state. The problem seems to center on handsets where a Touch ID home button has been repaired by an unauthorized company or individual, but it has also reportedly impacted customers with damaged iPhones that have otherwise been able to carry on using them without repairs.
Challenges with third parties making repairs involving the Touch ID sensor aren’t actually new: A 2013 report from iMore, released shortly after Apple introduced Touch ID on the iPhone 5s, revealed the Touch ID sensor and related hardware on each iPhone unit is specifically paired to that unit, presumably for security purposes. Home buttons, which include the Touch ID sensor, cannot be swapped between even identical iPhones, and the iMore article states that “For DIY repairers, things just got a bit more difficult. When removing the screen, say to replace a cracked screen, you’ll also need to remove the Touch ID cable to transfer it to the new screen. Extra care will need to be taken to ensure the cable isn’t damaged.”
This 2013 report is confirmed by a more recent statement from an Apple spokesperson speaking to The Guardian, stating that “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,” The spokesperson added, “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.”
Prior to iOS 9, however, the impact of replacing a Touch ID sensor incorrectly or damaging the cabling was simply the disabling of the Touch ID feature, and possibly Apple Pay support — the iPhone would otherwise still function and users would be relegated to using their iPhones with password authentication. However, it appears that with iOS 9, Apple is now enforcing the Touch ID security protocols more rigidly, locking down phones entirely if iOS detects that the Touch ID sensor has been tampered with. While this is a very good security precaution — especially where Apple Pay is involved — the lack of information from Apple on this matter has understandably left many customers feeling that the company is resorting to dirty tricks to force repairs to be made at Apple authorized facilities, often at a higher cost than smaller independent repair shops can offer. While some customers have had no success getting Apple Stores to resolve the error 53 problem, this may simply be a result of a lack of training of front-line Apple Store staff in dealing with this particular issue.