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iOS Error 53: Not new, but lawyers smell an opportunity

If you have an iOS device that has been repaired using unofficial hardware, a security feature may shut down the device so that the data remains safe

There has been a lot of outrage on social media in the past few days over what is known as ‘Error 53’, and how it is designed to shut down and temporarily disable iOS devices in case the software detects a possible threat to the data in the device. Essentially, this error code comes up when the iOS security codes run a verification on the hardware identification numbers of some components in the iOS device, and if they detect an unauthorized third-party screen, home button or Touch ID sensor (specifically in the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus). A lot of users tend to get the iPhones repaired by service centres which are not authorized by Apple and may use non-genuine parts. However, this does not show up on all repaired or damaged phones, and if you are lucky, you can pretty well continue to use the device as it is.

On 5 February, Apple released an official statement, “We take customer security very seriously and Error 53 is the result of security checks designed to protect our customers. 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."

But, Error 53 isn’t specific to the iOS 9.1 update, as some reports and users on Twitter now seem to be suggesting.

In December 2014, a user by the name lana2011 posted in the Apple Support Communities forum, “When I updated iPhone 6 to iOS 8.1.2 i have error 53 so what is the solution?" In October 2015, a user sygomide wrote, “I’m trying to download the new program of my Iphone 6, and every time the iphone show 53 error. iPhone 6, iOS 9.0.2." And further back in January 2013, kdeuschle wrote, “I can only sync to about 80 gig and then this error shows up," while referring to Error 53 on his iPod Classic 160GB. And these are just some of the examples, with the only difference being that Apple perhaps wasn’t being more active about the Error 53 feature back then.

What is not clear is whether any of these users got any repairs done on their phones, but Apple’s description of Error 53 states, “your device might have a hardware issue that stops the update".

A lot of law firms in the US and the UK are waking up to what is perhaps a massive opportunity for them, reports The Guardian. Apple’s policy of effectively killing people’s iPhones following the software upgrade could potentially be viewed as an offence under the Criminal Damage Act, 1971, in the UK, which states, “A person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property belonging to another intending to destroy or damage any such property or being reckless as to whether any such property would be destroyed or damaged shall be guilty of an offence." In the US, Apple could face a class action lawsuit for disabling iPhones of users.

It is perhaps a case of miscommunication that has led to this confusion. A user dragonfrog puts it in perspective on the BoingBoing forum, “The problem here, I think, is not the feature, it’s that the secrecy around it turned it into a mis-feature. If they included a warning in the package (that) tamper resistance feature means that work by non-Apple authorized repair services may be mistaken for tampering attempts, and lead to the phone being disabled. Maybe a feature some customers don’t want, but can make an informed choice about."

Incidentally, Apple’s Terms and Conditions document for iOS 9.1, article 7, paragraph 6, states the following, “Should the iOS software or services prove defective, you assume the entire cost of all necessary servicing, repair or correction. Some jurisdictions do not allow the exclusion of implied warranties or limitations on applicable status or rights of a consumer, so the above exclusion and limitations may not apply to you."

While it is debatable as to why Apple never really educated consumers about what it calls a security feature. At least then, they would have been able to make an informed decision about either getting repairs done from third-party service centres or continuing to use damaged hardware.

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