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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.

Others, like long-time privacy and sensible-copyright-policy advocate Cory Doctorow, also (or instead) point to Apple's tight control of its hardware when in its customers hands, making it sometimes seem like we're renting the right to live in Apple's world instead of acquiring equipment and software we own and can choose how to use.

Doctorow noted at Boing Boing, "iPhone customers are finding that their investments and data are being confiscated by a distant, high-handed corporation that gets to hide behind tens of thousands of words' worth of never-read, all-encompassing terms of service."

I'd like to find a middle ground here, although I agree Apple puts unnecessary restrictions in the name of protecting users, and if we take the company at its word, often crosses into a 'nanny ecosystem', that does things for our own good... there, there, don't fuss. And these impulses often seem to intersect with Apple's financial interests, even when those interests are modest.

For instance, the prohibition on running apps in iOS that aren't purchased or downloaded from the App Store certainly has a strong basis in preventing malware. We can look at other mobile platforms' less-restrictive app screening and installation policies as a cautionary tale. Yet, there's no buried Advanced switch that would let users who know they're taking a risk install non-App Store apps.


Many Android and Android-forked devices offer 'sideloading', often requiring checking just such a box to accept your fate. Amazon offers this on its Fire, and it has its own store of apps, along with mostly DRM (digital rights management)-protected books and videos. Likewise, many browsers let us connect to sites with expired or misconfigured security certificates. While this is unwise, they typically require us to step through multiple hoops so we know what we're getting into, and accept that burden.

What Apple could have done (and still could) with Error 53 is transform it into a notification, rather than bricking the phone. The phone could still lock up and require restoration, but iTunes could offer something better. Like:

Something appears to have happened to your Touch ID sensor, and we can no longer ensure the security of your Touch ID and Apple Pay settings. Click here to permanently erase the Secure Enclave, rendering your secure data irretrievable, and proceed to use your iPhone without Touch ID and Apple Pay in the future. Or click Cancel, and contact Apple to replace your phone; your data will be securely disposed.

Given that Apple provides Error 53 in part to explain this, it's not revealing any additional secrets to give people a choice. Even if a third party gains access without the phone's owner knowing, the fact that Touch ID and Apple Pay no longer work is a giveaway. Perhaps iOS would occasionally remind a user of this fact, and the Touch ID section of Settings could provide additional information, too.


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