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  • Apple and the Solution to Error 53

    February 19th, 2016

    These days Apple has a lot on its plate. First and foremost is how the courts will react to their refusal to provide a backdoor to break into an iPhone 5c used by a terrorist. The conclusion to that story has yet to be written, but it may very well wend its tortured way through the courts for quite a while before there’s a final resolution.

    As you might imagine, I’m sympathetic to Apple’s cause. It appears they are correct that the act of jailbreaking one iPhone, however laudable the reasons might be, will hurt everyone. Once the genie is out of the bottle, once a legal precedent has been set, what stops China or another country from imposing similar requirements on Apple, say to sell iPhones in their country? It’s the needs of the one outweighing the needs of the many.

    Besides, a lot of the information the FBI seeks can be had by other methods, such as email, and SMS messages. Obviously messages sent through Apple’s system are encrypted, as are third-party apps having nothing to do with iOS other than being installed on an iPhone.

    Meantime, Apple has resolved another pressing controversy in a way that makes plenty of sense.

    So here was the scenario: Folks who had their iPhone 6-family gear repaired by an unauthorized third-party repair shop that includes the Touch ID system ran into a problem. Rather than using Apple’s approved parts and repair methods, the secure connection is not reestablished and it failed with an Error 53 message under a security test. So the iPhone was bricked.

    Apple has already stated this action protects the customer not just from bad repairs, but attempts to tamper with the iPhone’s security that might include installing a fraudulent fingerprint sensor.

    That, however, wasn’t good enough for some. One class action lawsuit has already been filed, but it appears Apple may have circumvented the damage proactively. So on Thursday, Apple issued a new version of iOS 9.2.1 that, when installed, is designed to restore the iPhone to normal functionality — except for the Touch ID, which remains disabled. So call it a secure half-a-loaf solution.

    Apple explained exactly what they did and why in a brief statement:

    Some customers’ devices are showing ‘Connect to iTunes’ after attempting an iOS update or a restore from iTunes on a Mac or PC. This reports as an Error 53 in iTunes and appears when a device fails a security test. This test was designed to check whether Touch ID works properly before the device leaves the factory.

    Today, Apple released a software update that allows customers who have encountered this error message to successfully restore their device using iTunes on a Mac or PC.

    We apologize for any inconvenience, this was designed to be a factory test and was not intended to affect customers. Customers who paid for an out-of-warranty replacement of their device based on this issue should contact AppleCare about a reimbursement.

    As the statement indicates, this is not an over-the-air update. In order for an affected customer to restore their iPhones, they must do the installation via iTunes on a Mac or a PC. The fix involves connecting the bricked iPhone via a USB cable. It may first require putting the iPhone into recovery mode by holding down the Home button while powering it on, and waiting until the iTunes logo appears before plugging it in to the computer for installation.

    Since the software was released, iFixit.com, the company that tears down tech gear, treated the fix and pronounced it successful.

    Now the complaints, particularly from legal firms seeking a huge payday, are that the customer has the right to repair their iPhones anywhere they want. But that means they are responsible for the results if they don’t use an approved Apple repair shop. I realize that, in some cases, you may be too far from an Apple Store or third-party authorized facility to conveniently get the work done. The shop in the local mall or the nearest town may claim to be able to repair your iPhone, and in most respects they probably can. It’s not impossible to get displays and other components.

    But the Touch ID system is carefully designed to integrate with the secure enclave chip to provide a high level of security. Unless Apple’s own parts are used along with the prescribed repair procedures, the secure connection isn’t restored. That’s why the Error 53 message appears. At least new versions of iOS will restore basic functionality without Touch ID.

    I also suppose one has the right to complain to the repair shop for taking on a task they weren’t equipped to handle. That may represent ignorance, incompetence or possibly fraud, and I suppose customers can complain that the repairs were improperly handled and demand refunds. I also assume these shops have some sort of guarantee, but if Apple is offering a reimbursement for these unauthorized repairs, the customer will only lose time and some level of convenience until the fixes are performed.

    Can Apple somehow be forced to make repair kits available to any shop trained or not? I doubt it, although customers cannot be stopped from taking their iPhones anywhere they want for repairs. But “caveat emptor” must apply.



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