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What’s Turning iPhones into Useless Bricks?

iPhone owners who use third-party repair services are finding their devices can suddenly become useless “bricks” after they update the iOS operating system. Apple confirmed yesterday that the disabling “Error 53” occurs because the company wants to prevent Touch ID-related security problems that could be introduced by unauthorized repairs.

Reports about the iPhone-killing Error 53 have circulated at least since the spring, when The Daily Dot’s Mike Wehner wrote that his iPhone 6 Plus died after he disabled the device’s Touch ID because of repeated problems with the feature. Following an update to iOS 8.3 not long afterward, Wehner saw this message on his phone, “An unknown error occurred (53)” and discovered his device had “breathed its last breath.”

Since then, numerous iPhone users have described similar experiences on Twitter and Apple’s online support forums. The Guardian reported today that complaints about the issue from iPhone 6 owners number in the “thousands.” Apple confirmed the cause of the disabling Error 53 in a statement to The Guardian.

The Price of Out-of-Warranty Repairs

Apple has not yet responded to our request for comment about the Error 53 complaints. However, a support page on the Apple site last updated on December 21 advised iPhone owners with the problem to contact Apple Support.

“If your iOS device has Touch ID (pictured above), iOS checks that the Touch ID sensor matches your device’s other components during an update or restore,” the page noted, adding that this is intended to ensure security for iOS features related to Touch ID. “When iOS finds an unidentified or unexpected Touch ID module, the check fails. For example, an unauthorized or faulty screen replacement could cause the check to fail.”

The support page advised iPhone or iPad owners who had their devices serviced by people other than Apple Service Center technicians, Apple Store employees or authorized Apple service providers should “contact Apple Support about pricing information for out-of-warranty repairs.”

Owner Overrides an Alternative?

Writing today in Boing Boing, writer and social commentator Cory Doctorow observed that concerns about tampering prevention and security could be addressed by enabling owner overrides — that is, allowing a device owner to specify that the unauthorized third-party repairs had been approved.

“[T]he phones that Apple is remote-killing haven’t been doctored: they’ve been fixed,” he noted. “There are many independent service centers for Apple’s products where you can get your phone fixed more cheaply than the official rate. Independent service centers also thrive in places where there are no Apple service centers at all.”

Today’s Guardian article described freelance photographer Antonio Olmos’ difficulty with just such a situation: Olmos was covering the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe recently when he dropped his iPhone and went to a local repair shop because “there are no Apple stores in Macedonia.”

Although the phone worked fine after the repairs, it stopped working and displayed the Error 53 message when he installed an iOS update later, he said. Olmos had to spend nearly $400 for a replacement phone. “The whole thing is extraordinary,” he told The Guardian.

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