The Fatal Error 53 and Apple’s Delayed Response

March 01, 2016 by Jennifer A. Diffley

Error 53 bricked iPhones that had been tampered with, but now Apple is offering a solution.

Error 53 bricked iPhones that had been tampered with, but now Apple is offering a solution.

If you've been one of the thousands of people encountering an "Error 53" message after the latest iOS upgrade, congratulations: you now own a very expensive hockey puck. The error occurs after iOS 9 is installed and the software detects third-party tampering. Apple claims it's part of an effort to stop nefarious tamperings with the fingerprint reader, but the error also occurs if the screen is replaced by a third party repair store or any other components are altered or replaced. 

Apple has a long-standing resistance to third-party repairs and the reasoning is valid: those screen repair kiosks in the mall will fix your iPhone for a fraction of the $129 price Apple charges, but they don't perform the repairs in an ESD-safe environment and often use plastic instead of glass. That means the replacement may work for a while, but when (not if) the iPhone does finally die, the customer may go to an Apple store only to be told nothing can be done; the warranty is voided and Apple is unable to even swap it for a paid replacement. 


Still more salvageable than an iPhone with Error 53

Apple's claim could make sense if the fingerprint data were stored in the hardware of the fingerprint reader itself, but it's not: data points are stored within the iOS. If anyone did attempt to access the phone, a simple software reinstall wipes fingerprint information. 

The most disturbing aspect is that the error drives home the unsettling reality that we're moving closer and closer to not actually owning our own hardware. This is made even more apparent by both Apple's and the major cell phone providers' push toward monthly leases. Apple's iPhone Upgrade Program charges $32.41 for the freedom to upgrade to the latest iPhone at any time, and AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon have all abandoned the old "contract" model for a monthly "upgrade" fee on top of your normal monthly cell phone charges. By the time you've invested enough money in the monthly leases to have paid for the phone outright, the next iPhone model is out. In essence, all you're really doing is borrowing the phone for a year or two, like a Rent-a-Center sofa. 

However, if Apple is going to start treating its hardware like a big-ticket life purchase like a car or a home, it needs to acknowledge the freedom of ownership. To clarify: if you buy a car, you're allowed to alter said car however you see fit. If you void the warranty by making significant alterations to the car, you're allowed to do so: it's not like Toyota is going to shut down your car. But that's exactly what Apple is doing here. It's saying you're allowed to "own" the phone as long as you don't alter it in any way. If you do, Apple is within its rights to brick your phone.

Error 53 was significant enough an issue that Apple soon found itself facing a class-action lawsuit by aghast customers who found themselves with inoperable devices. After the lawsuit, an apology and fix was issued. Apple stated, "We apologize for any inconvenience, this was designed to be a factory test and was not intended to affect customers." Perhaps. Or perhaps the pressure made Apple see the light...months after the iOS update that caused the error and just after the lawsuit. 

At any rate, monthly upgrade program fees aren't going anywhere, and Error 53 is an unsettling indication of an industry that retains a firm grip on its products...even when they're in customers' hands.

1 Comment
  • jkwilborn April 01, 2016

    As long as we purchase upgrades that only run Apple software, this will continue as it’s the business model.  I and many others are looking at phones that are basically a Linux pc on your phone.  Sailfish OS is driving forward to make it where you can buy a phone and have the software to do what you wish.  You keep paying and they keep taking your money.  Even you realize we can’t keep this up…

    Like. Reply