There’s been a lot of chatter lately—both on iFixit’s forums and on the wider web—about Error 53, a problem that’s been bricking a whole lot of iPhones recently. In fact, our Error 53 help page has been viewed nearly 200,000 times—presumably by people who suddenly and unexpectedly found their previously-working iPhones rendered useless after a software update.
Error 53 seems to affect iPhone 6 or 6 Plus users—and possibly other Touch ID enabled devices (the jury is still out on the 6s and 6s Plus, which have a different cable design). Sometimes, the error crops up after an accident that somehow affects the home button or home button cable. But more often, Error 53 affects users who have done repairs involving the home button/cable, either on their own or through a third-party repair tech (read: not in an Apple Store). The phone works perfectly fine after a successful repair, for a while… but as soon as users connect to a computer and attempt to update the phone’s OS, they get the dreaded Error 53—and an effectively dead phone.
In the early days of the Error 53 run, Apple stores were uninformed about the issue, and could occasionally be convinced to replace the device. Nowadays, Apple refuses to fix the problem in stores, which means owners have to buy brand new (and very expensive) phones. Obviously, we find this troubling.
So, here’s what we think we know about Error 53 so far—including tips on how to avoid it:
Error 53 is indeed Touch ID related. Apple states on their error info page that: “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.” That means if your home button, or home button cable are not the ones originally shipped with your phone, you could run into Error 53. The incidences of Error 53 have dramatically increased after the release of iOS 9.
Apple claims Error 53 is a security measure. In a statement to Guardian Money, an Apple spokesperson said, “We protect fingerprint data using a secure enclave, which is uniquely paired to the Touch ID sensor. When iPhone is serviced by an authorised Apple service provider or Apple retail store for changes that affect the Touch ID sensor, the pairing is re-validated. This check ensures the device and the iOS features related to Touch ID remain secure. Without this unique pairing, a malicious Touch ID sensor could be substituted, thereby gaining access to the secure enclave. When iOS detects that the pairing fails, Touch ID, including Apple Pay, is disabled so the device remains secure.” Interesting note: Apple’s idea of ‘disabling Apple pay’ appears to be destroying the entire phone and making you buy a new one.
Obviously, the Touch ID sensor is an important security measure—but it’s also not the only security measure that an iPhone has. Even without a functioning Touch ID button, iPhones still require a PIN (passcode) for access. So if you were able to take a locked phone and install a new Touch ID magically coded to your finger, you’d still need to know the PIN. Which is why bricking the whole phone (without any forewarning) over a different home button or cable strikes us as a little extreme.
We don’t know—and any answer we give would be completely speculative. Error 53 could be caused by an unforeseen bug, although if that were the case we hope they would have issued a software fix.
Guardian Money also asked Apple about third-party repair—and here’s how Apple responded: “When an iPhone is serviced by an unauthorised repair provider, faulty screens or other invalid components that affect the Touch ID sensor could cause the check to fail if the pairing cannot be validated. With a subsequent update or restore, additional security checks result in an ‘error 53’ being displayed … If a customer encounters an unrecoverable error 53, we recommend contacting Apple support.”
The trouble with that answer, though, is that Error 53 isn’t necessarily a problem of third-party parts. It can happen with new OEM parts out of a different iPhone. It’s a matter of synchronization—not third-party parts. Also, a lot of people live in places where they can’t just pop into an Apple store for a repair. Because there is no Apple Store to pop into—and there is no Apple-authorized service provider within hundreds of miles. In those cases, lots of people go the DIY route, or go to a local mom-and-pop repair store. The Guardian details, for example, a freelance photographer who broke his phone while covering the refugee crisis in the Balkans.
“Because I desperately needed it for work I got it fixed at a local shop, as there are no Apple stores in Macedonia. They repaired the screen and home button, and it worked perfectly,” Antonio Olmos told The Guardian. Weeks later, he upgraded the OS and the phone bricked. He had to buy a new phone.
Whatever Apple’s reasoning, Error 53 doesn’t make us very happy. And we’d love to see Apple fix the problem. If the pairing check can’t be fixed with an update (ironic), there should be a way for independent repair shops to re-synchronize components. As long as the device requires a PIN on boot, then the device would be just as secure as it was before the part swap.
When you replace your display, make sure that you or your third-party repair tech uses the original Touch ID sensor, button, and cable. If your home button is faulty, for the time being you’ll have to get it repaired through Apple. If you can’t, then just don’t replace it. Use the on-screen accessibility button, or risk bricking your phone. If you must replace a home button or torn cable (or you already have done so), do not upgrade your phone OS.
If you encounter Error 53 and can reinstall your original home button and original home button cable, do so. If you don’t have the original parts, and haven’t updated your phone yet, don’t. Beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be an answer. All we can hope for is a lucky break at a local Apple store, or for a future fix.
There’s really nothing we can do in the short run to help people unbrick their phones. But we’re working to make sure that consumers have more repair options in the long run. As we said earlier, there should be a way for independent repair shops to re-synchronize the native components, and unlock a phone. Apple has posed this as a security risk—but there are locksmiths in the world for a reason. If you lock your keys in your own car, AAA can open it back up for you. If you lock yourself out of your house, a locksmith can get you back into it. No one is going to make you throw your apartment away because they’re afraid of the locksmith. Their ability to unlock things for owners doesn’t pose an unnecessary security risk.
As long as the owners can prove their ownership via PIN, repair shops should have some way to get owners back into their own phones after Error 53. Just this week, we launched repair.org—an organization that represents consumer and professional repairers. One of the tenets of the organization is that repair professionals should be able to unlock devices—and that they should have access to the same parts and the same tools that “authorized” repair shops do. Repair.org has helped introduce Fair Repair legislation in several states that we think would help solve this problem.
Find out more about Fair Repair legislation and The Repair Association (repair.org) here.
Repair is noble.