Apple: Error 53 is About Security, not Bricking iPhones

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.