Apple and the Touch ID Conspiracy Theory

February 9th, 2016

If you’re a class-action attorney, this might be a great time to be alive. You may have a big, bad multinational corporation in your sights, one who is allegedly infringing on the rights of innocent people worldwide. It’s time for that corporation to pay the piper and for you to pad your wallet with huge fees.

The alleged oppressor of individual rights is Apple Inc., a company that has faced class-action lawsuits in the past, and they’d seem to be an easy target. At least that’s the theory. Technically, that theory may even be correct, but let’s really see.

So consider this: You have an iPhone 6 or later. Something happens that impacts the Touch ID button, so you have it replaced. Now most units are still under warranty, even if it’s AppleCare Plus or a third-party protection plan such as SquareTrade. In the former case, the unit would be fixed or replaced under warranty. In the latter case, you’d go to a warranty company to take care of things.

But those who bought their iPhones in the few months where warranties have expired have important decisions to make. Should you take your unit back to an Apple Store and pay a not-cheap price to have repairs done, or seek out an authorized or perhaps a non-authorized third-party repair shop?

So here’s the problem: Your iPhone 6 family handset, including the original and the 6s versions, requires a repair the impacts the Touch ID system. The sensor is replaced as part of the process. For reasons of cost or convenience — and there are many who live far from an Apple Store — the repairs are performed by a third-party repair shop not authorized by Apple.

All well and good. You take home your iPhone, and get a prompt about an iOS update. After it’s installed, the unit stops working with an Error 53 message. The phone is bricked so, therefore, it must be Apple’s fault.

Are we clear about this so far?

You will be naturally upset, and want to blame someone for your misfortune. After all, from a practical and legal standpoint, you really did nothing wrong. You should not be forced to pick the manufacturer if you choose not to — or can’t — and if the proper parts are used, everything should work properly. Except when they don’t.

So what’s Apple’s take on the matter? Well, according to a statement given some media outlets, “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.”

So this is supposed to be a good thing, a way to protect you and your iPhone’s data? It means that someone can’t just steal your iPhone, disassemble it and use a bogus Touch ID system to bypass security checks and grab your data.

The fix is, supposedly, to replace the original Touch ID sensor and cable, which will reestablish the proper secure connection between the fingerprint sensor and the internal chipset that stores the security token. Or just let Apple figure it all out for you.

But if you do choose to contact Apple, you have to confront the political fallout of your decision to use someone else to make the original repair. You see, if Apple suspects that the handset of a normally covered iPhone has been tampered with in some way, or damaged by a third-party repair shop, they could, in theory tell you that you’re out of luck. Just go back to the third-party shop or buy a new iPhone. Chalk it up to experience.

Now one thing that’s not being mentioned in all these reports, which is just how many people might have been impacted by this problem. Among the things that do break, I expect Touch ID is not so high on the list. Even then, if you tell Apple a good sob story, I do not seem them sending you on your way disappointed, particularly if you live in a place where no Apple Store is nearby, or near enough to be reasonably accessible.

It may also be that a repair scheme will have to be devised for third parties that will guarantee the integrity of the replacement process, so in the event you need such a repair, you’re not forced to choose Apple. Indeed, the class-action attorneys would cite any requirement to use a manufacturer’s repair people to fix a consumer electronics device as evidence of infringing their rights. It doesn’t matter that Apple really didn’t intend to do any harm. Laws are also likely being violated.

I also wonder what happens if the fingerprint sensor is busted on a Samsung Galaxy smartphone. Can you just take it to any repair shop, have it fixed and go on your way, or will any software update cause the handset to stop working? Does Samsung even have such a tight security scheme? At least with a Android device, the chances it would be able to even receive an OS update are extremely low.

Regardless, I am sure we haven’t heard the last words from Apple on the subject. Just don’t call it “Touchgate.”

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