There’s a serious issue bricking Apple iPhones that update to iOS 9, and Apple’s response to the problem isn’t winning it any fans. The problem, known as “Error 53,” occurs in devices that have been repaired by third-party technicians or by other unauthorized repair centers. The catch? Apparently it’s being triggered by upgrading to iOS 9 — at least right now.
We say “right now,” because this DailyDot story from 2015 references an Error 53 issue that dates back to the author’s upgrade to iOS 8.3. In that case, however, the author notes that the iPhone had never been damaged or repaired in any fashion.
The Guardian reports on the case of journalist Antonio Olmos who had to have his iPhone repaired by a third party while on assignment in Macedonia. The repair worked perfectly until he agreed to update the device’s operating system. Once he did that, the phone died irrevocably with an “Error 53″ message.
What’s Error 53?
Apple explained the situation to The Guardian as follows:
We protect fingerprint data using a secure enclave, which is uniquely paired to the touch ID sensor. When iPhone is serviced by an authorized 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.
When an iPhone is serviced by an unauthorized 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.
But there’s nothing Apple support can do. Period. There is no reset, no known method of fixing the problem, no way to restore data or bring the device back from the dead.
The worst part is, no one is certain exactly what kind of repairs trigger the problem. Some of the people who’ve had Error 53 brick their devices report that the problems they encountered had nothing to do with the Home Button and did not require replacement of those components. Apple’s own error page says nothing about the problem.
Apple, meanwhile, doesn’t go out of its way to inform anyone that this is an issue. I’ve been an iPhone owner for seven years and I cover the company professionally; this is the first I’ve heard of a mandatory hardware lock-in that effectively prevents third parties from safely fixing iPhones with TouchID sensors. Kyle Wiens of iFixit told Guardian Money, “The problem occurs if the repairer changes the home button or the cable. Following the software upgrade the phone in effect checks to make sure it is still using the original components, and if it isn’t, it simply locks out the phone. There is no warning, and there’s no way that I know of to bring it back to life.”
Don’t drop your iPhone, kids. And if you do, don’t take it to a third party. This is a blatant attempt by Apple to force its customers to use expensive first-party service and support options. But more than that, it’s an uncommunicated attempt to force them to do so, in which nobody knows there’s an intrinsic problem with a third-party service until their phone is already dead.