‘Error 53’ May Be a Drag, But It’s Vital to Keep iPhone Users’ Data Safe

iPhone users are grilling Apple over “error 53,” but security researchers say Apple is merely trying to protect their data.

Feb 5 2016, 8:33pm

Image: LWYang/Flickr

Apple came under fire on Friday over a security feature that some iPhone users say rendered their smartphones inoperable bricks after they were repaired by third-party service centers.

These users have noted on websites like gadget repair clearinghouse iFixit.com that an error message, "error 53," sometimes appears on their iPhone after non-Apple technicians repair a broken Home button or the cable that connects the Home button to the iPhone's motherboard. Kyle Wiens, the CEO of IFixit, told The Guardianthat the issue may be a "big problem" for iPhone users given that the message board thread discussing the issue has already amassed more than 183,000 hits.

Apple says the error message is part of a security feature designed to protect iPhone users' data. According to Apple, error 53 is triggered whenever a security test between the Touch ID sensor and the iPhone's "Secure Enclave" (which processes fingerprint data, which in turn is used to unlock the smartphone and authorize purchases on the App Store) fails. Authorized Apple service centers are able to re-validate the secure connection whenever Home button repairs are made.

While that may seem cold comfort to some users, security researcher Jonathan Zdziarski told me in an email that Apple's efforts represent a "basic anti-tampering mechanism," and are an "overall good idea."

In Zdziarski's view, the security feature is "especially useful" in a number of different scenarios, including the protection of "high-profile individuals whose devices could possibly be bugged." Zdziarski also pointed to the recent development of tools like IP-Box that can brute force crack an iPhone PIN code. "It would not surprise me to see a future black box capable of either brute forcing biometrics, or transmitting biometric data from prints taken from other sources," he added.

In other words, while strictly protecting the integrity of the Touch ID fingerprint sensor may inadvertently create problems for some users, failing to do so may create even larger problems.

"If [Apple] knew there were a lot of knock-off parts being used, I'd think [it would] have issued a warning of some sort," Zdziarski said, explaining that a glut of cheap parts on the market would "impact [Apple's] own repair and warranty programs."

All of this "leads me to believe [Apple was] probably doing [error 53] for security reasons more than just to mess with users," he added. While perhaps true, it does make repairing the iPhone that much more difficult for everyday users, particularly if there's not an authorized Apple repair center nearby. It also speaks to the larger, and perhaps more worrying, trend of the increased difficulty of repairing gadgets without a manufacturer's blessing: Apple protecting the data of its users is admirable, of course, but doing so in a manner that diminishes their freedom to repair is difficult to swallow.

Apple, meanwhile, advises users who see error 53 to contact an official, authorized repair center for further possible assistance.