Apple: Error 53 is About Security, not Bricking iPhones

| Analysis

Error 53 has taken the Internet by storm and is being tossed around as an example of how Apple is trying to screw iPhone users. The error can appear after the Touch ID sensor is replaced without following the proper procedure, which leaves the iPhone unusable. Apple says that's part of keeping our personal data—and fingerprints—secure.

Apple says Error 53 is about security, not cutting out repair centersApple says Error 53 is about security, not cutting out repair centers

Stories about Error 53, which is displayed on iPhone screens after an improper Home button replacement, ran like wildfire across the Internet on Friday after the Guardian ran an article saying Apple was killing iPhones after they're upgraded to iOS 9. The piece went on to say Apple chose not to warn iPhone users about the potential issue.

Apple responded by saying there's a pairing process that must happen for the Touch ID sensor to work properly, and if that isn't done, the iPhone will fail its own security checks. The company said in a statement,

We take customer security very seriously and Error 53 is the result of security checks designed to protect our customers. iOS checks that the Touch ID sensor in your iPhone or iPad correctly matches your device’s other components. If iOS finds a mismatch, the check fails and Touch ID, including for Apple Pay use, is disabled. This security measure is necessary to protect your device and prevent a fraudulent Touch ID sensor from being used. If a customer encounters Error 53, we encourage them to contact Apple Support.

The heart of the matter is that the Touch ID sensor in the Home button on iPhones and iPads interacts with the Secure Enclave where sensitive personal information, including fingerprint-related data, is stored. The sensor uses your fingerprint to authenticate and allow actions like acting as the passcode to unlock your iPhone, and authorizing your credit card for Apple Pay.

If a replacement Home button with Touch ID sensor isn't properly paired with the phone it's in, that poses a security risk. Apple can't guarantee the data the sensor is supposed to protect really is secure, and that it isn't being leaked to third parties or even hackers.

That concern isn't hyperbolic; it's already been shown to be possible with some Android smartphones. Unlike passwords that can be changed if they're cracked or leaked, fingerprints are forever and once in the wild they aren't useful as secure passcode alternatives. It makes sense for Apple to include a pairing procedure for replacement Touch ID sensor-equipped Home buttons to ensure our fingerprints, credit cards, and other sensitive personal information is safe and secure.

Despite the logic behind Apple's design, people are practically foaming at the mouth calling the required replacement procedure arrogant, and saying it's an example of the company failing to care about its customers. While the company may be arrogant at times, this is an example of how seriously Apple takes security. Without the pairing process, third-party Touch ID sensors could be installed on iPhones that do leak data—either by accident or design.

The real issue here is two-fold: Apple has a long history of sharing information only when pressed, and the Internet is filled with people who have an inflated sense of self entitlement.

Error 53 isn't something that just appeared. It's been part of Apple's Touch ID security system all along, and something the company could've noted in a way that's easy for the public to find. Instead, was detailed in the manuals authorized service providers use.

What's far more difficult to address is the sense of entitlement some people have towards Apple, even if they don't use the company's products. When Apple does something they deem inconvenient or restrictive they lash out, justified or not.

It's a tough position for Apple to be in because protecting our privacy and sensitive data is critical, but it is cutting some third-party repair providers out of the game. In some places that's not a big deal because Apple Stores are easy to find, but what about areas where there aren't any Apple Stores or authorized repair centers?

People travel, and iPhones break. No one should be punished with a bricked iPhone for that. Still, it's better than the alternative and the media frenzy it would bring: leaked fingerprints and credit cards. That's a disaster Apple never wants to face.

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I’m wondering if a suitable compromise might be to pair the new button at the ‘expense’ of a wipe/reset of the secure enclave? Presumably the user can supply passwords/fingers and start anew.

Am I missing something?


It’s more complicated than that. The display assembly when replaced needs to go through a calibration machine which not only calibrates the multi touch but also the touch ID sensor. When you replace that display with a 3rd party which none are authorized by Apple to do so, they do not have the proper calibration machine to make it work. Hence error 53 usually after they try and update the IOS. If you break your display its best to go to an Apple store or call Applecare to get a replacement display. Afterwards you will have your phone back like new but won’t get the error 53 either.


Much of the “foaming at the mouth” seems to have been from the usual suspects that find any excuse to hate on Apple.

If you came home and found your door lock, which was formerly black was now bright red plastic, would you trust it? OK your key might work but somebody changed it. There is a security risk. Apple deals with far more critical stuff than your TV set so I don’t see Apple locking down the phone as an overreaction. Mind you some of the stories scream about how Apple “forced” them buy a new phone. More research has suggested to me that they often will swap out the phone, if it’s out of warranty, at the cost of the refurbished unit. To that I say, you get what you pay for. You went to a shade-tree mechanic to fix your device, don’t expect Apple or any manufacturer to clean up their, and your, mess. Do you think your GM dealer would happily replace your Volt if you had “some guy” do a mod that resulted in the engine melting down? Especially if it were out of warranty? Hell no.

This is all a case of users being penny-wise but pound-foolish

And no the concern is not hyperbolic. Many people, including myself, have had credit card information stolen because someone put in a fake reader in a store check out lane that recorded all of the credit/debit card info and PIN numbers that passed through. This was a big problem a few years ago here in BC. Chip cards seem to have put a stop to it for now but the next frontier is likely to be hacking into phones directly to access things like ApplePay, SamsungPay, etc..


Could Apple have communication better? Always. But on the other hand, I imagine they didn’t think that anyone would be stupid enough to take an £800 gadget and their personal data (without backup) to an unauthorised repair shop.


Muppet: It doesn’t really matter whether they thought that or not. bricking the phone is excessive. Period. And remember that some places don’t have Apple Stores, and some don’t even have Apple-authorized stores/repair facilities.

Vaughn: you’re on track. That would be the sensible solution. The secure data in the enclave is protected but the phone still works. One concern though - would there be any way to get the new sensor to allow access to other data, such as Keychain? I think that could readily be prevented but I don’t know.

geo: please don’t diss us shade-tree mechanics smile I have replaced several busted screens (family, not mine) quite successfully. I neither ask nor expect Apple to fix things if I screw up but I do believe that I should be able to fix my stuff if I want to.

Apple has hit a hornet’s nest with this one. I hear that they are “working with people” to get things going, and that’s good. I think that folks there had not thought through the consequences (bad) and have moved quickly to contain the damage (good) and make iPhones work again (even better). Typical Apple - way to go!

Graham McKay

In this day and age programmers should be beyond trying to save a few bytes of storage by only using error codes rather than textual descriptions when a problem happens. (I remember dealing with this on the first corporate programming job I had back in 1984!) Much of this “foaming at the mouth” would be mitigated by having a message saying something like “Error 53: We have detected a problem with the security hardware on your device. Please contact an authorised Apple repairer.”.

I don’t necessarily agree with a “continue to use but without secure enclave” option - even seemingly minor “if/then/else” options in security protocols increase the likelihood of coding mistakes for hackers to leverage.


My nearest Apple Store is about 1500 miles away - in another country - which causes real problems when things go wrong. My nearest authorised Apple service provider is 100 miles away. Buying new products is easy through the online Store, but getting service, in or out of warranty, is an expensive and time-consuming pain.

Reading comments in The Guardian it is quite obvious that most people don’t realise the potential disaster of a security breach involving fingerprints. In reading dozens of comments I didn’t see anyone mentioning fingerprints. Most commenters seem to believe Error 53 is an Apple scam to get people to either use Apple’s (expensive) repair services or buy a new phone. There’s lots of talk about the legal issues.
Error 53 is clearly a PR failure.

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