Product Design

Repair Expert Responds to Error 53

It’s the iPhone failure heard round the world: Error 53.

Thanks to an article in The Guardian, the Internet exploded over the weekend with news about the iPhone-killing error. As we previously detailed, Error 53 mostly affects iPhone 6 and 6 Plus users who have replaced their home buttons on their own or through an independent repair tech. Post-repair, the phone works fine. Until users plug into iTunes, initiate an update, and trigger Error 53—which permanently bricks a previously-working phone.

The error has prompted a lot of outcry that Apple is purposefully squeezing out independent iDevice repair—and forcing people who made “unauthorized” repairs to buy a new phone. Well, here’s what an actual independent repair tech of iDevices thinks about it:

“I am thrilled to see widespread attention finally coming to the Error 53 plague,” wrote Jessa Jones in a recent blog post. Jessa is the owner of the iPad Rehab, the proprietor of Practical Board Repair School, and one of the most knowledgeable repair experts that we’ve ever met. Back in October, Jessa posted a YouTube video on Error 53. Since then, she’s been getting “anxious requests from stunned users for help solving Error 53 every single day.” Unfortunately, for most people there’s no way to get their phone back. “Their previously working phone was intentionally bricked by Apple with no recourse,” Jessa says.

iPhone 6 error 53 screenshot
Screenshot courtesy of Jessa Jones

Apple defended Error 53 to The Guardian as a Touch ID-related security measure:

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.

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.

But Error 53 isn’t a problem of faulty parts. The parts work fine; even brand new OEM parts from a different iPhone can result in the same error. And this isn’t a problem of bad repair work; the tech did his or her job. If not for the update, the phone would work just fine.

Writes Jessa:

The recent media coverage about iPhone 6/6+ error 53 is great, but misleading. The statement from Apple is another ‘dig’ at independent repair in the battle to get people to stop fixing their phones and just upgrade already for God’s sake!

The kernel of truth in the articles is that yes—at update an iPhone 6 will check for a signal from the original fingerprint sensor that is coded to the logic board, and if it does not detect that signal the phone will brick with error 53. It is a simple check: “hello fingerprint sensor xyz, are you there?” if “yes I am here” is not received—the phone bricks.

What it does not do is “check all parts to make sure that the phone hasn’t been tampered with” or “check for third party parts and disable the device for security.”

And what about Apple’s claim that bricking an entire phone is a security measure? Not quite, says Jessa. You can’t just replace one fingerprint sensor for another fingerprint sensor magically coded to a different fingerprint. Once you swap out the original sensor, the Touch ID just stops functioning. “Apple Pay by Touch ID is already disabled,” Jessa wrote.

She adds:

Aftermarket home buttons have no fingerprint sensor at all. They are just home buttons. A phone with a new home button will simply have anything related to Touch ID greyed out, the sensor is not there. It cannot be accessed by Touch ID of the button. Apple Pay will not respond with the fingerprint. The phone is still secured (if the consumer wishes) by the passcode lock, just as all phones. If the phone is stolen, it cannot be reset and activated without the original owner’s Apple ID and password—i.e. it is protected from theft with the iCloud activation lock.

But it will work. Indefinitely. You can enjoy all the other functions of the phone. You can call, and text, take selfies, connect to WiFi and check email. You can play Candy Crush and FaceTime and surf the internet…

But then one day you click “ok” in response to Apple constantly bugging you to update your iOS. The result? The phone chugs along and then fails to update with error 53. You cannot go back in time and ‘undo’ this failed update. Your phone will boot to recovery mode and there is no escape. The special pictures you took that morning are gone. Your notes and grocery list are gone. The phone you paid $700 for is now a complete brick. The phone itself has no hardware defect, it simply can’t answer the question from the CPU with “yes I am here” from the fingerprint sensor chip. There is no recourse. Apple has intentionally bricked your working iPhone 6.

Given the holes in their statement, Jessa did a little creative re-writing of Apple’s explanations to the press—“to help their meaning be more clear,” she said. Her additions to the statement are in bold:

We take customer security very seriously, almost as seriously as we take selling new phones, and Error 53 is the result of security checks designed to protect our customers from being able to affordably repair their broken phones. 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, like it already was the entire time you’ve been using your phone since you changed the home button, but now we also brick your phone for you.

This security measure is necessary to make you believe that it will 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, where we will advise you to buy a new phone.

And stay away from that dirty independent repair industry.

Jessa isn’t the only one that thinks Apple is trying to force consumers into more expensive repairs or upgrades. In fact, several law firms are already considering class action lawsuits against the tech giant over Error 53.

We’ll keep you updated as the Error 53 problem keeps developing. And don’t forget to head over to Jessa’s blog and check out her very thorough post on how Error 53 works—and why it’s bad for repair techs and consumers as a whole.