Apple Activation Lock: Security feature or recycling roadblock?

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Activation Lock on iPad and iPhone
Activation Lock is apparently a surprisingly controversial security feature.
Photo: Apple

An editorial by an iFixit employee condemns Activation Lock, a security feature of iPhones and recent Macs because it makes these computers hard to recycle.

But Walt Mossberg, well-known journalist formerly of the Wall Street Journal, calls the editorial “outrageous.”

Activation Lock 101

Built into iOS, watchOS, and macOS Catalina is Activation Lock. It’s turned on when Find My [device] is, and links the computer to its owner’s Apple ID. Without the associated passcode, the device can’t be switched to another account.

Apple says that “Activation Lock is designed to keep your device and your information safe in case your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple Watch, or Mac is ever lost or stolen.”

iFixit on why Activation Lock needs fixing

iFixit’s Craig Lloyd has another opinion. His editorial says Activation Lock “seems like a nice way to thwart tech thieves, but it also causes unnecessary chaos for recyclers and refurbishers who are wading through piles of locked devices they can’t reuse. This reduces the supply of refurbished devices, making them more expensive — oh, and it’s an environmental nightmare.”

He cites Peter Schindler, founder and owner of The Wireless Alliance, an electronics recycler and refurbisher, who says that “We receive four to six thousand locked iPhones per month.” These devices absolutely can‘t be reused because of Activation Lock.

Walt Mossberg responds

This editorial clearly infuriated Walt Mossberg, one of the co-founders of Recode and AllThingsD, and a former columnist with the WSJ. He called it “outrageous.”

“It condemns a great Apple feature which thwarts thieves from stealing your data and discourages them from stealing Macs,” writes Mossberg on Twitter.

Remembering the bad old days of iPhone muggings

Years ago, iPhone-related crime was rampant. Apple product theft accounted for 14% of all crime in New York City in 2012, according to the NYPD.

But phone thefts have plummeted since then, down 50%, which iFixit’s Lloyd cites as a reason why Activation Lock is no longer so necessary. But the reason so many criminals stopped targeting iPhones is because of Activation Lock.

Muggers know that a stolen iPhone can’t be resold, only broken down for parts. That makes them much less valuable to anyone but their owners.

Lloyd expressed unhappiness that MacBooks with Apple’s T2 security chip and macOS Catalina now offer Activation Lock, along with iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. He wants Apple to “implement a bypass that would allow certified recyclers and refurbishers to unlock donated devices if they’re not reported lost or stolen.“

The danger of that is that’s subject to abuse. Anything a legitimate business can do, a criminal gang can do as well. Opening a backdoor into Activation Lock raises the potential of making this security feature useless and setting of another huge wave of Apple-related street crime.