Secondhand MacBooks that retailed for as much as $3,000 are being turned into parts because recyclers have no way to login and factory reset the machines, which are often just a couple years old.
“How many of you out there would like a 2-year-old M1 MacBook? Well, too bad, because your local recycler just took out all the Activation Locked logic boards and ground them into carcinogenic dust,” John Bumstead, a MacBook refurbisher and owner of the RDKL INC repair store, said in a recent tweet.
The problem is Apple’s T2 security chip. First introduced in 2018, the laptop makes it impossible for anyone who isn’t the original owner to log into the machine. It’s a boon for security and privacy and a plague on the second hard market. “Like it has been for years with recyclers and millions of iPhones and iPads, it’s pretty much game over with MacBooks now—there’s just nothing to do about it if a device is locked,” Bumstead told Motherboard. “Even the jailbreakers/bypassers don’t have a solution, and they probably won’t because Apple proprietary chips are so relatively formidable.” When Apple released its own silicon with the M1, it integrated the features of the T2 into those computers.
“The functionality of T2 is built into Apple silicon, so it’s the same situation. But whereas T2 with activation lock is basically impossible to overcome, bypass developers are finding the m1/m2 chips with activation lock even more difficult,” Bumstead said. “Many bypassers have claimed solutions to T2 macs (I have not tried or confirmed they work…I am skeptical) but they admit they have had no success with M1. Regardless, a bypassed Mac is a hacked machine, which reverts to the lock if wiped and reset, so it is not ethical to sell bypassed macs in the retail environment.”
Responsible recyclers and refurbishers wipe the data from used devices before selling them on. In these cases, the data is wiped, but cannot be assigned to a new user, making them effectively worthless. Instead of finding these machines a second home, Bumstead and others are dismantling them and selling the parts. These computers often end up at recycling centers after corporations go out of business or buy all new machines.
Bumstead told Motherboard that every year Apple makes life a little harder for the second hand market. “The progression has been, first you had certifications with unrealistic data destruction requirements, and that caused recyclers to pull drives from machines and sell without drives, but then as of 2016 the drives were embedded in the boards, so they started pulling boards instead,” he said. “And now the boards are locked, so they are essentially worthless. You can’t even boot locked 2018+ MacBooks to an external device because by default the MacBook security app disables external booting.”
Motherboard first reported on this problem in 2020, but Bumstead said it’s gotten worse recently. “Now we're seeing quantity come through because companies with internal 3-year product cycles are starting to dump their 2018/2019s, and inevitably a lot of those are locked,” he said.
Often the previous owners are corporations or schools who buy and sell the machines in bulk and aren't interested in helping recyclers or refurbishers unlock them. "Previous owners do not return phone calls, and large corporations that dump 3000 machines assume they have been destroyed, so it is critical we have a solution that does not depend on the previous owner approving,” Bumstead said. “And after all, we have property rights, so the original owner is not the current owner and does not technically have a right to condemn to death what is no longer their property."
Bumstead offered some solutions to the problem. “When we come upon a locked machine that was legally acquired, we should be able to log into our Apple account, enter the serial and any given information, then click a button and submit the machine to Apple for unlocking,” he said. “Then Apple could explore its records, query the original owner if it wants, but then at the end of the day if there are no red flags and the original owner does not protest within 30 days, the device should be auto-unlocked."
Apple has long fought the secondary market and independent repair shops. After years of selling people expensive repair plans and fighting the right to repair, the company has begun to relent. In 2021, it announced it would begin telling people how to fix their own phones and selling them the parts to do so. But the piles of perfectly useable but permanently locked MacBooks at repair stores and recycling centers are a testament to just how far Apple still has to go.
Apple did not immediately return Motherboard’s request for comment.