How a Hacking Group Did Apple Repair Professionals an Accidental Favor

Hacked and leaked schematics won't help you make a counterfeit MacBook. They will help repair experts recover lost data, though.
May 10, 2021, 1:08pm
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Image: Getty Images

Last month, as Apple prepared for a major product launch event where it would show off colorful new Macs, iPads, and location-tracking AirTags, hackers reportedly pillaged one of its major suppliers.

The ransomware group REvil said it infiltrated and nabbed data from Quanta Computer Inc, which manufactures MacBook parts. REvil demanded $50 million in the cryptocurrency Monero, or else it would leak stolen files—including "product blueprints," Bleeping Computer noted. 

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REvil eventually released some documents online. Motherboard reviewed PDFs that show wiring diagrams for MacBook components and layouts of a laptop's logic board; they're dated March 2021, suggesting they correspond to an upcoming release

The threat to Apple, such as it is, centers on the idea that Quanta's documents would reveal the design of an unreleased product, giving some rival a competitive edge or impacting consumer expectations. But the PDFs viewed by Motherboard contain no such information: Anyone hoping for a tantalizing render of a sleek new device would be sorely disappointed, and you couldn't possibly use these to engineer a MacBook clone.

You could, however, use them to understand how all of the MacBook's parts fit together.

That is exactly what independent repair experts will do with these documents. They've already shown up on forums and online marketplaces. A few bucks will get you one, if you know where to look. From that perspective, REvil's hack is about more than a trough of PDFs: It's a front in the shadow war waged between Apple and indie repair experts who say they just want to help consumers fix their gadgets.

"Our business relies on stuff like this leaking," Louis Rossmann, owner of the Rossmann Repair Group, which specializes in board level repair, said in a phone call. "This is going to help me recover someone's data. Someone is going to get their data back today because of this."

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Although hobbyists with a guide and a good set of tools can manage basic repairs, like replacing a MacBook's battery, logic boards are much more complex. They can require microscopic adjustments to circuitry and chips. And the stakes couldn't be higher: These are the components that determine whether someone can get their data back when things go horribly awry. Many professionals, including those sponsored by Apple, aren't able to do this work. Those who can benefit immensely from schematics like the ones hacked by REvil.

"You can't go to Apple and say 'I will give you $800,000 to give me this data,'" Rossmann said. "[But] when we fix the board, most of the time we preserve the data." 

Although sharing them is illegal, documents like these serve as a lifeline for repair shops. Sources tell Motherboard that leaked information is widely shared, sometimes on physical media like USB drives or burned CDs. They say they see no ethical issue using hacked documents, because they shouldn't be secret to begin with.

The core of the issue is that Apple has no obligation to provide detailed manuals for its hardware. Lawmakers and advocacy groups around the country are attempting to disrupt that status quo through "right to repair" legislation, which would require manufacturers of everything from smartphones to tractors to make certain documentation, including schematics, available to anyone.

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"I'm not saying I'm in favor of people hacking into computers to get this information," Rossmann said. "I would prefer to get this by going to Apple and giving them $1,000 every year to get this information."

Although Apple copyrights the designs, advocates say these blueprints don't reveal trade secrets, since they ultimately just label parts that anyone has access to. Apple did not respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.

"The idea that there's some creativity in the way the lines are drawn is kind of ridiculous, but that's the rule," Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, said. "Armed with a schematic, you cannot build a phone or a MacBook. The diagram is basically, this part connects to this part. You don't know what the parts are or what they do. You just know that there's a connection."

An expert can reverse-engineer how everything fits together. Trial and error can indicate how a device's circuitry works, which teeny component connects to a given function in the machine, but it takes time—years even. Here's another way of thinking about it: Say someone comes to you with a fully assembled LEGO Death Star, one of those complicated 4,000-part things that costs $500. They ask you to explain how to build the turbo laser towers, which swivel on an axis and pivot their aim up and down. You could break the thing down piece by piece to figure it out. But you'd certainly be spared a headache if you could just point to a diagram in an instruction manual.

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There's an additional layer of absurdity when you consider how the technology diagrammed in these schematics tends not to dramatically change year to year, Justin Ashford, owner of the Art of Repair, a popular repair channel on YouTube, explained.

"Apple is acting like they haven't been using the same circuits for years," Ashford said. "There are so many things that are identical from phone to phone that are just kind of moved around. This whole thing about arguing about trade secrets is horse shit."

Not every schematic circulating online is the result of a dramatic hacking, of course. They can leak in any number of ways. Reverse-engineered blueprints put together by third parties are often shared, too. 

This also used to be much less mysterious business. Long before the iPhone, televisions, washing machines, and other electronic gear would come with schematics to help people get their equipment repaired, Gordon-Byrne explained. Device longevity was a given. No one was replacing their massive CRT every year.

In the era of the annual smartphone upgrade, though, things have changed. Manufacturers control how their technology becomes obsolete and decide who can repair it. They give preferential treatment to “authorized” shops and use refurbishing as a line of business.

"I'm still waiting for someone to tell me legitimately what having a wiring diagram ahead of time does to hurt them, especially since they used to give it away," Ashford said. "I'm going to use it and I'm going to help people with it."