[Updated: Apple provides a fix]Unauthorized iPhone services might brick your iPhone (Error 53)

Another week and another case to make the blog sphere explode with anger and fanboyism. If you have strolled around different iPhone/Apple forums you must have come face to face with a users having upgrade problems when a new iOS version comes up. These problems are usually related to the famous Error 53 in iTunes. After that error it is actually game over for the device and one more reason for Android users to bash on iPhone and it’s users. But what actually causes this? Well let’s dig into it a little, shall we?

[Update 08/02/2016: The problem with the Error 53 comes up only if the TouchID sensor or the cable has been changed while in service.]

[Update 18/02/2016: Apple has fixed the problem with a new version of iOS 9.2.1]

The rise of the unauthorized workshops

Before this week it has been pretty much just good guesses what causes the Error 53 when you are upgrading your iOS to newer version. It has been known that it somehow relates to a hardware fault but users have seen this error with a phone that has just been serviced. However the reason has now been revealed and the major fault here is that the phone has been fixed by an unprofessional unauthorized service center. Update: If they change the TouchID sensor or the cable linking it, it will cause the problem with the next update. Most of the repairs to iPhones can be done without actually replacing the sensor or the cable, unless they are broken or get broken by the service guy.

We all know Apples practices when it comes to iPhone and iPad services. When a user brings his/her iPhone or iPad to a Apple store or premium reseller store for a repair the device gets exchanged to a ‘new’ phone which has refurbished by Apple. The good thing here is that the user gets a pretty much new phone but the bad thing is the price. Here in Finland for example you pay (depending on the device) anywhere from 200€ to 350€ for the ‘new’ phone.

Because of this, in the last few years, we have seen these small repair centers (we call them ‘nyrkkipaja’ in here) to popup almost everywhere. So what do they do that Apple doesn’t do? Well they offer to actually to fix the phone by changing the internals and not just exchanging the whole phone. Usually at only a fraction of Apples asking price for the same issues. Sounds good right? It is until you are hit with the security checks within the iOS upgrade process.

Update: Apple has released a new version of iOS 9.2.1 today 18/02 to fix the ‘bricked’ phones. After the user flashes the new 9.2.1 firmware on his bricked phone it will work again but the touchid feature won’t work anymore.

Error 53 is all about the security of userdata

This week for the first time we actually have a good explanation what the ‘Error 53’ actually means in iTunes. We know that it has something to do with hardware but no-one before this week has actually had a good idea which hardware is the faulty one here.

The problem is now have been located to the TouchID sensor and the cable that connects it to the motherboard. It seems Apple has added security checks to the post-iOS9 upgrades. The upgrade process actually checks that the TouchID sensor matches the other hardware in your phone.

When pressed on the subject Apple gave the following comment:

“We take customer security very seriously and Error 53 is the result of security checks designed to protect our customers,” an Apple spokesperson told iMore. “iOS checks that the Touch ID sensor in your iPhone or iPad correctly matches your device’s other components. If iOS finds a mismatch, the check fails and Touch ID, including for Apple Pay use, is disabled. This security measure is necessary to protect your device and prevent a fraudulent Touch ID sensor from being used. If a customer encounters Error 53, we encourage them to contact Apple Support.”

So it’s the security of the data why these checks are in place. Unfortunately it’s always the security that gets the ‘blame’ – security shouldn’t make users life harder. The comments from Apple are also little strange as there has been reports of the security problems of the TouchID (and every other fingerprint scanner).

Some blogs even took their funny hat out of the closet and compared the situation to car manufacturers. According to them this might even break competitive rules as compared to car manufacturers can’t force the user to use the official service centers for their car repairs. Well actually the thing is not so black-and-white but it’s always good to compare mobile technology to cars right?

Hardware checks are the norm in future

We are in a time when security is starting to play a much bigger role in our daily lives. Data encryption on devices is becoming such a big ‘problem for law enforcement’ that company CEOs have to defend it. So it is easy to say that these kind of hardware checks are becoming more and more a default choice to keep our data safe. Samsung does a similar thing at a software level to ensure nothing has been tampered with using their Knox security.

It does seem that Apple might be going to extremes and are also checking that the device has a original battery in it as there has been reports that 3rd party batteries will also block the iOS upgrade. Thankfully in these situations the device won’t be brick after it and the upgrade will be successful if you put the original battery back into the phone.

In this TouchID case though, I think Apple is going a little bit too far. Why do they have to brick the whole device because user has exchanged his TouchID sensor for example? It is again a question whose phone it actually is and can a device manufacturer force user to use their own service centers?

In this case, Apple could have just disabled the TouchID sensor and just leave it to work as a normal home button and not just make the whole device as an expensive paperweight. I also know there are users that would say just the opposite about this.

We will be discussing this in tonights EuroTechTalk Special podcast too, so if you have comments please send it to my way in twitter or with email and remember to tune in tonight at 7pm GMT for this weeks Special episode.

About Juha Uotila

Tech Lover from Finland. Consumes lot of metal music. Consumer of craft beers. Also showing some signs of #phonehoboism.

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