Apple is in the midst of an all-new controversy, thanks to the mysterious “Error 53” message that is bricking iPhones without warning.
The problem can hit DIY types or anybody who has ever had a Touch ID sensor (or other iPhone hardware) replaced by a repair shop not authorized by Apple. When they update iOS, the device locks down, displaying the cryptic Error 53 message and rendering the iPhone virtually worthless.
Apple says Error 53 is actually a security feature of iOS 9 that keeps your personal information secure, but customers aren’t convinced. Cult of Mac talked to iPhone repair and and parts experts to find out what exactly is going on. The truth is that Error 53 has plagued many iPhone owners, not just those who have replaced Touch ID — and it’s not totally clear why.
What is Error 53?
Error 53 is an unfixable error code displayed by iTunes when restoring an iPhone that is found to have an unidentified or unexpected Touch ID module. The error message is terse — and almost always terminal for the device in question.
Which devices are affected?
The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus definitely. It’s still not clear if the 6s and 6s Plus are vulnerable, too, because they use a different cable design than earlier models. iPads with Touch ID can get the error, but the iPhone 5s is not affected, even though it has Touch ID.
What causes Error 53?
Apple’s official statement is that Error 53 occurs in devices that have had Touch ID, or other components related to the fingerprint-recognition feature, replaced by an unauthorized party:
If your iOS device has Touch ID, iOS checks that the Touch ID sensor matches your device’s other components during an update or restore. This check keeps your device and the iOS features related to Touch ID secure. When iOS finds an unidentified or unexpected Touch ID module, the check fails. For example, an unauthorized or faulty screen replacement could cause the check to fail.”
Apple claims the reason it locks down the entire device is so a malicious Touch ID sensor can’t be installed on your device that could potentially provide unauthorized access to your fingerprint data in the iPhone’s Secure Enclave. The Secure Enclave is an “advanced security architecture” developed by Apple to safeguard passcode and fingerprint data used for Touch ID. Apple describes the Secure Enclave like this:
Fingerprint data is encrypted and protected with a key available only to the Secure Enclave. Fingerprint data is used only by the Secure Enclave to verify that your fingerprint matches the enrolled fingerprint data. The Secure Enclave is walled off from the rest of the chip and the rest of iOS. Therefore, iOS and other apps never access your fingerprint data, it’s never stored on Apple servers, and it’s never backed up to iCloud or anywhere else. Only Touch ID uses it,
So why is Error 53 a big deal?
It’s kind of like if the door handle on your Tesla broke and you got it fixed at a local repair shop, then Elon Musk decided to lock down your car’s engine in the name of security because you didn’t pay Tesla to replace the part.
Aside from rendering perfectly good devices worthless, it’s a dick move by Apple. They could simply make it so you can only use your PIN to login; instead, Apple is locking up devices. There’s supposedly no way to fix Error 53.
Can other hardware problems trigger Error 53?
Yes. Contacts in the repair industry say the Error 53 problem affects more than just Touch ID: Even devices that have undergone unauthorized screen repairs can be bricked by Error 53.
“Apple’s statement that it’s just TouchID is bullshit,” said one repair expert, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s not just Touch ID.”
iPads with Touch ID can also be affected. We first received reports of Error 53 in September 2015, when a U.K. shop replaced several iPad Air screens. The iPads worked fine until Apple released iOS 9. When the iPads got updated, they were bricked. The repair shop didn’t replace the iPad’s Touch ID hardware — just the screens.
Some people have received an Error 53 even though their devices were never repaired or opened up. Mike Wehner reported last April that his iPhone 6 got hit by Error 53 after having display and Touch ID issues for months. He never had the LCD or Touch ID replaced, but got the error message during his update to iOS 8.3. When he took the phone to the Genius Bar, they were practically clueless and just swapped the device for free.
Does anyone know what’s really going on?
No one is totally sure, but there are currently two major theories in the repair community on why Error 53 is happening.
1) It’s a mistake. Error 53 is caused by a bug in Apple’s hardware-verification process. When the device starts up, a built-in hardware checker ensures all the hardware is genuine and working properly. A replacement Touch ID button should still work as a Home Button whether it’s genuine or not, but for some reason the checker disables the Home Button, Apple Pay and the entire device.
2) It’s an effort by Apple to fight counterfeit LCDs. There’s a shortage of genuine Apple replacement parts, especially LCD screens, and the market is flooded with counterfeits. Error 53 might be an anti-counterfeit measure. But of course, Apple won’t admit to this — there are all kinds of antitrust legal ramifications. Class-action lawsuits are already being planned against Apple in several countries.
How many devices are affected?
It’s impossible to nail down a specific number, but it looks like a lot of devices have been bricked by Error 53. iFixit says its Error 53 support page has been viewed more than 200,000 times. The topic has also been discussed extensively on Apple’s Support forums over the last year.
How can I avoid Error 53?
If you’ve ever had a part replaced by anyone other than the Apple Store, don’t update your iPhone’s software. Only Apple Stores have hardware capable of re-establishing an authentic connection between the your Touch ID and your iPhone’s Secure Enclave.
Can I fix my iPhone if it gets an Error 53?
Maybe, but it’s not easy. Reinstall your original home button and any other parts that got replaced if you still have them.
If you don’t have the genuine parts anymore, you’ll have to buy a new iPhone.
Take it up with Tim Cook.