Bad Apple. The Intentional Bricking of Working iPhones with Error 53

I am thrilled to see widespread attention finally coming to the Error 53 plague.   Since I made my "Error 53, Let's Talk" YouTube video, I get anxious requests from stunned users for help solving error 53 every single day.   For most people, there is no solution.  Their previously working phone was intentionally bricked by Apple with no recourse, in the name of "security"

What is error 53?
Error 53 is triggered at update/restore of the device by iTunes.   The software queries the phone for the presence of the original fingerprint sensor that was coded to the logic board.  If it gets no response---error 53.  Phone is bricked.  Unusable. No recourse.

This is Apple's clever official response to error 53.   I have made some edits (in red) to help their meaning be more clear.

In a statement released following the publication of the Guardian’s story, an Apple spokesperson said: 

“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.

How does a phone come to lose its fingerprint sensor?
The fingerprint sensor is a big chip that is part of the home button itself.   However, home button function and fingerprint sensing are two totally different circuits that share the same roadway to the logic board.   Sometimes the fingerprint sensor just conks out, like any other part.   But most often, the original fingerprint sensor is simply gone, because the home button was replaced.

The clicky function of the home button depends on a tiny little 1mm piece of plastic.  Reminiscent of the old game "Trouble" with a cheap plastic popper.    Like any piece of plastic subject to daily mechanical wear---these things just stop working over time.   When this happens to you, what are your options?

Who can I trust to Fix my iPhone?
Apple would like you to believe that unlike a computer or car, the iPhone is a delicate flower with such precision innards that the handling of it can only be entrusted to the kids working at the Apple Store.   But is this really true, or is it just an overextension of the controlling mentality of the Apple company that has been so key to its success?  On the other hand, can we trust independent repair shops that work without the support of the manufacturer? Let's look at both options.

What does Apple authorized repair look like? 

For many common problems, Apple authorized repair is still just a flat out refusal.  If you have a bad headphone jack, for example, the Apple Store refuses to turn the few screws necessary to install a new $7 dock connector and instead will only offer you the option to buy a new phone.   What if you have the baby pictures trapped in the encrypted soldered on memory of a water damaged phone?  Too bad.  Apple will do nothing to help you.  For other problems, the repair cost is still outrageous.  Your son's iPhone 4s needs a new $10 battery?  Apple will quote you a repair price more than the value of the phone.  

I work closely with a few Apple authorized repair providers and have taught them many things about iPhone hardware and diagnosis.  It is staggering how their hands are tied by Apple when it comes to repair.  Even something as simple as a basic iPhone 6 screen replacement sanctioned by Apple using OEM parts is not within the wheelhouse of what Apple allows them to do.  They must carefully disassemble the iPhone to ensure that it has the original logic board, original screen, original housing---and then put it all back together and...send it to a corporate repair center in order to have the screen replaced.  This process nets them $10 for the effort.  It is not surprising that many of these authorized repair centers are quietly sourcing the same aftermarket screens that the rest of independent repair uses and just doing the replacements under the table for same day turnaround for their customers.  What is sad is that many of these places are operating blindly without really being connected to the wisdom of the shared experience of the independent repair community.   My Apple authorized store came to me with an error 53 phone and I explained to them what error 53 was all about.  They were shocked and sickened that Apple would do this.  Following up their corporate chain of command--no one had heard of error 53.  This was only a few months ago, when error 53 has been widely recognized by independent repair shops as missing original fingerprint sensor for over a year.

It may seem straightforward, there are Apple authorized repair centers and independent repair centers.  Clearly, you should go to an Apple authorized repair center for the best quality repair.  The reality is that Apple is no longer accepting new providers into their Apple authorized repair channel, and haven't for years. They have very little information available to their authorized repair centers, and tight control.  I wouldn't become Apple authorized for anything, while I'd like access to bona fide Apple parts, the company line would prevent me from being able to do repairs that are in the best interest of my customers.  

What about the Apple Stores themselves?

 I went to three different Apple Stores this year.  Each time I was stunned to overhear the "geniuses" telling customers that hardware defects that I knew were perfectly repairable in the hands of an independent repair shop had no solution and would require replacement of the device.  Even my own personal iPhone 6 developed a NAND chip failure as it approached the 1 year mark--a defect that was in warranty.  I live and breathe iPhone hardware repair.  Before bothering to make my appointment at the genius bar I did comprehensive troubleshooting and ruled out battery or charging system defects.  I knew exactly what the problem was when I went in there.   When my "genius" came out from behind the curtain where he analyzed my device, he told me "your iPhone battery is not able to charge fully and start the phone" (!!!)  This is ridiculous nonsense.

Purely for entertainment, I quiz the technicians at the stores with common iPhone hardware problems that we see in the independent repair community all the time.  For example, all lightning devices have a particularly fussy chip, the Tristar or U2, charging logic ic.  Changing this chip is a mainstay of my mail-in board repair business.  Every day we save iPhone 5 series phones that have charging sickness with a $99 U2 chip change on the logic board.   The Apple store folks are aware that many 5 series phones, and now also 6 have these charging problems.  But they consider this not repairable.  Phone must be replaced.
They believe that the common iPhone 6 loss of touch function with flashing white bar at the top of the screen is due to "bad screen calibration" and are completely unaware of the design flaw with the touch ic chip on the board, and its susceptibility to drop.  We repair these phones by the hundreds.  Anyone going to the Apple Store for repair advice will never find us or any of the other quality independent repair shops that can help them save the cost of replacing the device.

What about independent repair--can we really trust these 'shade tree mechanics'?
Any industry is plagued by unsavory people out to make a quick buck that will offer varying quality of parts and service.  There are plenty of stories of this in independent repair.  The barrier to entry in this field is low, and parts costs have more than doubled over the last year.  There are shops in a race to the bottom who are willing to sacrifice quality in order to remain profitable. My advice to someone seeking repair service is to read reviews of the business, and to not choose an independent repair provider based on price.

However, for the most part, quality independent repair shops are a fantastic option for mobile device repair.  It is in the best interest of Apple that older phones NOT be repaired, so that you are prompted to buy a new phone.   It is in the best interest of your local independent repair shop to offer you a robust repair that extends the life of your device at a reasonable cost so that you are happy and come back for future repairs.  This is reflected in the reviews of the business and local word of mouth.

So how does Independent Repair work?  
Most quality independent repair shops are plugged in to a global network of colleagues working on solving the same problems.  We are the first to identify new signature problems in devices by sharing information and best practices with each other.   At a recent repair conference a few people went head to head to compare adhesives and methodology to adhere replacement iPad screens.   Months ago we recognized that iphone 6/6+ have a design flaw that leads to non-functioning touch after a hard drop.  After replacing the touch ic chip on the board to solve, my colleague Mark Shaffer was able to identify the exact ball on the bga chip that is the culprit.   I doubt even the Apple corporate repair centers are aware of this, they have yet to acknowledge that this problem even exists.   Independent repair shops have been aware that the fingerprint sensor on the home button is married to the logic board since the 5s.   While the 5s is unaffected by error 53, most quality repair shops were aware of the importance of preserving the function of the native fingerprint sensor when the iPhone 6 first came out.    We started to see error 53 in phones that had a damaged fingerprint sensor or its cabling well over a year ago.   Until now, the Apple Store said, publicly even, "we don't know what causes error 53"

Parts sourcing is important.   All iPhone parts originate in China.   It would be fantastic to be able to simply order Apple certified parts directly from Apple and offer that to our customers.   But that is not an option.  Apple is not being willing to train its own authorized repair centers to do reasonable repairs,  nor is even willing to even accept new applicants to its weak authorized repair program.  In addition, Apple is certainly not willing to make certified Apple parts available to the independent repair marketplace.

A year ago this was not a problem.  There were plenty of ways to get backroom 'factory overrun' original Apple parts straight from China.  Apple responded by quietly raiding these Chinese suppliers in order to stem the flow of original parts to the independent repair marketplace.

Quoting Luke Piper of Direct Tech Supply on an industry forum post: 

"Apple did uncover that their subcontracted factories were leaking their rejected screens and one of the individuals behind this entire movement was Zhang Guo Rong. It is estimated that he made over 300 million RMB in the past 3 years as a procurement manager for foxconn who was not only helping to "reject" more screens than necessary through quality control, but he consistently over produced on all models. He is just one of the many that were busted during the investigation. Many other subcontracted factories no longer have apples business because they were apart of the same branch supply which was taking rejected screens and exporting them to Hong Kong to receive the deductable of the 17% vat and then smuggle them back in to sell to the open markets. The rejects will now be utilized by apples phone refurbishment operation"

 The result of this combined with increased buyback programs and 5 series OEM screen defect problems are that LCD supply significantly dipped.   Original screen prices have more than doubled in a year.  Our parts cost on an original quality iPhone 6 screen is now about $100.  At the same time, Apple publicly became more repair friendly--now offering a reasonable $109.99 iPhone 6 screen replacement.   Independent repair can not compete with that.  For most Apple stores, this still means swapping the customer phone and sending their phone to an Apple corporate refurbishing center for the actual screen change---which means the device will be resold with a new screen and Apple makes money on the sale of the refurbished phone, not the actual screen job.   What if you show up to your screen change appointment and the phone has some minor frame damage that would prevent it from easily getting a new screen slapped on and resold as new?  Then Apple will tell you it doesn't qualify and your option is to buy the out of warranty replacement phone at $299.     Any independent repair shop would use a custom tool to simply press the aluminum frame back into native position.

Apple wants you to buy a new phone---but without pissing you off.
The $109.99 screen change deal is an effort to appear 'repair friendly' for your late-model phone without actually losing money or doing any real repair.  You'll notice that the price of a screen change on older models is actually MORE than the iPhone 6. For older phones,  you are incented to just give up and just buy a new phone.  In independent repair, the work of a screen replacement on an older iPhone 4s requires turning 38 screws and disassembling the entire device from top to bottom.  The typical price is $60.   The Apple Store doesn't even offer a screen replacement for the 4s.  $199 to replace the device.

When your device is first released, the hardware on the phone matches the current software.  It works well.  You are then prompted to update, update, update your device as the overladen operating system rolls out more features and security updates.  Over time, you develop a hardware/software mismatch.  The phone is slow.  You are again incented to buy a new phone.  This is how their sales engine works.  By the way, my personal iPhone 4s still runs iOS 8 like a top and is a great device to hand down to my kids.

So what about error 53?
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"

What can lead to the fingerprint sensor not giving the "yes i'm here" message?  

The less common causes are a tear in the "long flex" that conveys the fingerprint sensor cable data to the CPU, a simple malfunction of the fingerprint sensor in a never opened phone, or minor liquid damage that enters at the home button and takes out the fingerprint sensor leaving the rest of the phone intact.  Additionally, we have people that simply wanted a customization and changed a black home button for a white one or vice versa, or people that had the clicky plastic piece fail on the original home button so they replaced it.

The most common causes are that the home button was damaged during a DIY screen change, and was subsequently replaced.   Or, someone who was not aware of the importance of preserving the original home button at screen change used a 'convenience screen' as a part.  Convenience screens have largely disappeared from the marketplace, but were used in the past by some franchise cell phone repair stores because they are faster to install.  (Franchise stores tend to be plugged into their own corporate engine and are the last to become of aware of trends in device problems compared to the rest of the independent repair community that is in constant conversation.)  The new convenience screen comes with a new home button, proximity sensor, front camera and ear speaker so that these small parts don't have to be transferred over from the original screen--this saves time and makes the repair easier for less experienced techs.   For example, the few Apple Stores that are actually allowed to do in-house screen replacements use these convenience screens.   Of course they have a proprietary secret weapon--a machine that with a few button clicks can tell the CPU "hey, you got a new fingerprint sensor, forget about the old one"    I love how my Apple authorized store asked for access to this device.  Apple's response "Oh, you'll never see it."

Is a phone with a new home button less secure?
No.  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.  It is a perfectly functional phone, no different in any way from say, my iPhone 6.  I think touch ID is annoying and I've never even set it up.  I choose not to use that feature of the phone.

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 can not 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.

What in the heck do they have to say for themselves?

Let read again Apple's official response to error 53.

In a statement released following the publication of the Guardian’s story, an Apple spokesperson said: “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.”

Oh Apple, how clever you are.  
My favorite is the missing last line.  "And we will advise them to buy a new phone."

I love how they said "checks that the Touch ID sensor matches your device's other components"....nearly all error 53 phones have no fingerprint sensor at all.  The aftermarket home buttons don't have them.  Touch ID is greyed out long before you hit that update button.  It is the implication that your phone with a simple replacement home button is somehow at risk for thieves to steal all your money with Apple Pay that is so ingenious.

"security checks to protect our customers"  Nice one.  To protect your customers from what?  Are you envisioning some future scenario there is such as a thing as a fake fingerprint sensor--some generic fingerprint sensor that could be manufactured into the aftermarket home buttons.  Then what?  Shady independent repair shops put in these sensors and....gain access to customer's Apple Pay and go on a spending spree during the hour the customer has left the phone with the shop?   Honestly, it would be far easier to just copy down the credit card info when they pay for a repair and then do a little identity theft and shopping later that night.  Or just steal their purse.

Really, I don't get it.   The phone is protected by passcode lock, and iCloud lock.  "New" home buttons that DO have a fingerprint sensor (i.e. one from another original iPhone) do not have functional Touch ID because it is not the original button.  Apple Pay by touch ID is already disabled.  What gain is there to brick the phone at update? Am I missing something?  Please put me out of my misery and tell me what it is.  The absolute worse case fantasy scenario I can imagine is if a theoretical (none now exist) generic fingerprint sensor home button was created that would accept *any* fingerprint, AND if that sensor, when installed, also had the magical ability to somehow trick the CPU into thinking it was the original sensor so that touch ID was not greyed out---then you could in theory have a security problem.  More likely, the phone would have to be flashed, aka restored, in order for the new fake fingerprint sensor to work, in which case the customer data is already gone.  In that case, yes error 53 prevents the installation of some non-existent future generic fingerprint ID.   It doesn't seem that much of a stretch if you've already tricked the phone into accepting the button as original that the same principle would also clear error 53, but what do I know.

I would certainly argue that it is a far better idea to wait until this far-fetched scenario actually happens---when you actually have post-magical home button phones walking around with a generic fingerprint sensor that can be activated by anyone, and wait to see some thief steal someone's phone and actually use their Apple Pay to rob them blind.  THEN Apple could simply say "well I guess you shouldn't have gone to that independent repair shop, nyah nyah!"  That might *actually* give people pause and send them back to Apple in droves.

But intentionally bricking thousands of perfectly functional iPhones that have no fingerprint sensor at all in the name of security?  Come on, now.  That's just kooky talk.

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