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Error 53 has the best and worst intentions

Glenn Fleishman | Feb. 15, 2016
One could argue that Apple bricked those phones in which it appeared someone's private information was at risk.

We live in a snooping world. It seem like everybody - from random teenagers in their parents' basements via government agencies or corporations to the creep who crushed on you in high school - wants to get information about us. Some are criminals, some duly sworn law-enforcement officials, some trollers and griefers. The internet obliges, to judge by the massive quantity of ads I see routinely that tell me how to get more information about my neighbours and friends, not to mention the daily reports of database cracks and thefts.

Apple's Error 53 debacle - a debacle in description, disclosure and damage control - stems from what I will assert are the same motivations that have led Tim Cook to state categorically and repeatedly that his customers' private communications are and will be kept secure from any interception by design. One could argue that Apple bricked those phones in which it appeared someone's private information was at risk.

Anti-tampering and intrusion-disclosure techniques have an important role in that, especially against criminal syndicates and government incursion (though that covers both legal and extrajudicial government action). Error 53 as a concept fits neatly inside that.

But there's the strong flip side: Apple as the nanny state, making decisions on our behalf that can, coincidentally, benefit its bottom line (however meagerly) by requiring customers to pay Apple to fix a problem.

Let's start at the bottom.

A middle finger... print

For the basics, you can read colleague Jared Newman's reporting for Macworld. The story was first broken by The Guardian, and others quickly realised it explained mysteries dating back many months, including a inscrutable failure that a Daily Dot reporter wrote about.

The TL;DR appears to be that if the Home button containing the Touch ID sensor on an iPhone 6, 6 Plus, 6s or 6s Plus is replaced, on installing an iOS 8 update (as Daily Dot reported) or an iOS 9 update the phone becomes 'bricked' or permanently unusable, and the device only reports an error numbered 53 if you try to restore it via iTunes. The phone can never be used again. This becomes more troubling because some people with this problem had never had a repair or, if they had one, it didn't include the Home button.

Apple's reply to Jared Newman was, "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."

The Touch ID sensor apparently pairs with Secure Enclave, an encryption module that stores fingerprint data and doesn't pass it back out. If the two become unpaired - such as a new sensor being put into a phone - this could indicate malicious tampering.


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