Apple has backed down on a blunt measure it took to protect hardware-based security in newer iPhones equipped with the Touch ID fingerprint sensor.
iPhone owners affected by the so-called “Error 53” bricking issue will be glad to know that Apple has released a new version iOS 9.2.1 that restores the device’s functionality except for Touch ID if the fingerprint sensor has been installed by non-authorised technicians.
The Error 53 issue has plagued iPhone 6 owners for several months but gained wider attention after a reporter from The Guardian complained a week ago that updating to iOS 9 will “kill your iPhone”. iPhones that experienced the error would be caught in a continuous reboot process.
Apple has faced accusations that it was was being unfair and punishing iPhone owners for repairing their devices on the cheap. It even triggered a class action claim that accused Apple of abusing its loyal fans.
However, as Apple explained amid the growing furore, Error 53 was a security measure to protect Touch ID. It occurred when an iPhone 6, 6 Plus, 6S or 6S Plus failed an iOS security test that checked whether the Touch ID sensor was correctly paired with the iPhone.
The security check itself made sense since the “secure enclave” — a cryptographic co-processor to the main chip that runs applications the iPhone — that supports Touch ID is the sole location of a cryptographic key that is used to protect fingerprint data. It also is used to verify that the user’s fingerprint matches the enrolled fingerprint data. As such, it guards much of the data on the iPhones with Touch ID.
Still, as Computerworld Apple-watcher Jonny Evans argued earlier this month, Apple made a mess of its response to the failed security check, firstly, by retrospectively changing the rules of iPhone repair, and secondly by bricking the iPhone when a more nuanced approach would have worked. If Apple needed to protect the secure enclave and Touch ID from potential malicious actors, a fairer option would be to disable Touch ID rather than the whole device.
The other issue raised in the class action suit was that Apple turned away customers affected by Error 53 since it was self-inflicted damage caused by using an unauthorised repair service.
Apple has now done a complete about-face. The fix, available via an iTunes update, will restore all functionality to affected devices except for Touch ID. Apple will also reimburse to customers who’d bought a new iPhone because of Error 53. Apple has provided instructions for installing the update here.
In a statement to Tech Crunch Apple explained that the security test was “designed to be a factory test and was not intended to affect customers.”
“This test was designed to check whether Touch ID works properly before the device leaves the factory,” it said.
“Customers who paid for an out-of-warranty replacement of their device based on this issue should contact AppleCare about a reimbursement.”
Today’s revision should spell the end of the class action bid and will likely go a long way to quelling concerns that Error 53 was anything but an attempt by Apple to protect a critical piece of iPhone security.
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