Seattle-based law firm PCVA is investigating a potential class-action lawsuit over the security feature that could leave some iPhone users with bricked phones, The Guardian reported. (PCVA has not responded to Mashable yet.)
The basic problem occurs if your iPhone 6 or 6 Plus home button is repaired anywhere other than an Apple Store or Apple-authorized repair center.
At first, the phone might work — with everything, including Touch ID, seeming perfectly fine.
But then, when you try to update to a newer version of iOS (or you attempt to restore your phone from a backup), the software checks to make sure the Touch ID sensor matches the rest of the hardware. If it doesn’t find a match — and only authorized Apple repair centers can pair a phone and Touch ID sensor — your phone will stop functioning.
According to Apple, this is a security measure, since the company pairs the iPhone’s Touch ID sensor with a specific phone and doesn’t allow those sensors to work with other phones.
That’s because of the sensitive nature attached to Touch ID, which includes information like your fingerprints and Apple Pay.
Last week, an Apple spokesperson told Mashable that Error 53 “is the result of security checks designed to protect our customers.”
But there haven’t been many details about Error 53 until now, which poses a problem for users. Even though it’s a valid security measure, plenty of users left with bricked phones are angry that the only official solution is to visit an authorized Apple Store and pay for an out-of-warranty repair — which generally means replacing the phone entirely.
Repair center concerns
While most cases of Error 53 arise from getting a home button repaired at an unauthorized dealer, some reports state that a screen replacement could also trigger the error message.
The only surefire way to avoid an Error 53 bricking: only have your phone repaired at an Apple Store or at an authorized repair shop. That might be fine for users in the United States or in western Europe, but in parts of the world without Apple Stores or easy access to authorized repair centers, that can be problematic.
Moreover, official Apple repairs typically cost much more than repairs by third parties. It’s this issue — that Apple may be forcing users to use its own (often more expensive) repair centers — that seems to be at the crux of a potential class-action situation.
PCVA states on its website that it believes “Apple may be intentionally forcing users to use their repair services, which cost much more than most third party repair shops. Where you could get your screen replaced by a neighborhood repair facility for $50-80, Apple charges $129 or more. There is incentive for Apple to keep end users from finding alternative methods to fix their products.”
That’s a criticism Apple has faced by the greater repair community as well.
I argued last week that a potential alternative to bricking iPhone devices with un-paired home buttons would be to disable Apple Pay and anything else associated with the secure element.
Since then, security and iOS experts pointed out that’s not tenable because of how iOS works with official hardware. Without any official word from Apple, it’s hard to know whether this is actually an option, but it does seem as though there could be some alternative to bricking the phone. And if that isn’t an alternative on current iPhone devices, it’s certainly something Apple should consider in the future.
Balancing security versus serviceability
Part of the problem with the Error 53 saga is that there’s no clear answer. Fundamentally, it’s a good thing that Apple is taking the proper precautions to pair the secure element and Touch ID with phones so that they cannot be swapped.
Can you imagine the outrage if a simple replacement of the home button could trigger a malicious break-in to your iPhone’s secure enclave? Any company asking customers to entrust its biometric and financial data to a phone needs to be taking the proper precautions to make sure that information cannot be hacked.
Apple’s network of official stores and authorized repair centers just isn’t not wide enough to service all users in all areas. Yes, Apple does repairs via mail, but that doesn’t always cut it when you’re talking about something as essential as an iPhone.
Moreover, because only authorized Apple centers can pair phones and Touch ID sensors, it really does limit how the consumer can get unbreakable phone repairs. That means if a third party did buy a genuine Apple Touch ID button, it still wouldn’t be possible to repair it without risking the wrath of Error 53.
Still, I can’t see Apple backing down on its commitment to device and data security — nor should it.
If there is a solution other than just going to an Apple Store, it may have to involve enacting a broader authorized third-party repair program that would let more shops and repair technicians be certified to repair Apple devices.