Tens of thousands of perfectly usable iPhones are scrapped each year by electronics recyclers because of the iPhone’s “activation lock,” according to a new analysis paper published Thursday.
Earlier this year, we published a lengthy feature about the iPhone’s activation lock (also called iCloud lock informally), an anti-theft feature that prevents new accounts from logging into iOS without the original user’s iCloud password. This means that stolen phones can’t be used by the person who stole it without the original owner’s iCloud password (this lock can also be remotely enabled using Find My iPhone.) The feature makes the iPhone a less valuable theft target, but it has had unintended consequences, as well. iCloud lock has led to the proliferation of an underground community of hackers who use phishing and other techniques to steal iCloud passwords from the original owner and unlock phones. It’s also impacted the iPhone repair, refurbishing, and recycling industry, because phones that are legitimately obtained often still have iCloud enabled, making that phone useless except for parts.
Activation lock is a topic that I’ve heard about regularly from people in the independent repair world, and Wednesday, the Colorado PIRG Foundation (CoPIRG), a consumer rights group, published a report that found one single recycling company in the state has had to scrap more than 66,000 otherwise reusable or easily repairable iPhones in the last three years because iCloud lock was enabled on devices that had been donated by their owners.
“While activation lock is intended to deter thieves by making stolen phones unusable and therefore not worth stealing in the first place, it has also resulted in making a surprisingly high number of donated or handed down phones unusable, having negative impacts on our environment and the used phone marketplace,” the report reads.
Between 2015 and 2018, the Wireless Alliance, the recycling company in question, collected roughly 6 million cell phones in donation boxes it set up around the country. Of those, 333,519 of them were iPhones deemed by the company to be “reusable.” And of those, 33,000 of them were iCloud locked and had to be stripped for parts and scrap metal. Last year, a quarter of all reusable iPhones it collected were activation locked.
“While we don’t have definitive numbers on how many iCloud locked devices are being generated nationwide, we can definitively say we’re not the biggest or only recycler of these devices in the country,” Andy Bates, vice president of the Wireless Alliance, told me in an email. “We’re not even the only one in Colorado.”
Bates said that the company has been certified by R2, OHSAS, and ISO, the leading certification bodies for environmental, work-safety, and data security standards respectively, and that all devices it resells have their data completely wiped from them. The company says that it sends donation boxes to partners around the country—churches, electronics stores, and wireless carriers.
“When the box gets full, they send it back to us, and we pay for what’s in the box,” Bates said. “The relationships we have built with these groups allow us to help them raise money and recycle millions of devices every year.”
Allison Conwell, a coauthor of the CoPIRG report, told me in a phone call that the Wireless Alliance’s findings show that many people donate their devices intending for them to be reused, but they’re scrapped instead.
“An activation unlocked phone can be immediately reused, which was the intention of the person who donated it,” she said. “A locked phone can at best be taken for parts.” Bates added that the Wireless Alliance separates locked phones from unlocked ones and ultimately has to disassemble and shred them: “iCloud locked devices can only be resold for their parts value and residual metals value.”
In her paper, Conwell suggests that Apple should work with certified recyclers to unlock phones that have been legitimately donated (a survey of random devices conducted by the Wireless Alliance found that more than 90 percent of them had not been reported lost or stolen.) The paper suggests that Apple could either unlock phones that have not been reported lost or stolen for 30 days, or affirmatively ask users whether they had donated their previous phone and unlock it that way.
Apple does have the capability to remotely unlock phones, but has thus far seemingly not engaged much with the recycling and repair world—numerous repair and recycling experts have expressed frustration with Apple’s activation lock over the course of several years. Apple did not respond to my request for comment about the CoPIRG paper.
“We have reached out to Apple in the past via multiple channels, but have not received a response,” Bates said. “Apple’s anti-theft goals could easily co-exist with sustainable recycling practices.”
If you do plan on donating an iPhone or otherwise reselling it, you should remove your iCloud account (and wipe the data yourself) before you do so.