Apple’s Error 53 fueling a `right to repair’ backlash

Cracked iPhone Screen Broken

To err is human, but to make a really spectacular mistake, you need an iPhone. An iPhone 6, to be exact. If you break your phone, and have it fixed at the wrong repair shop, it might be lost to you permanently.

It’s called Error 53, and while it’s bad news for iPhone owners, it could be even worse for Apple, and a transformative moment for just about every machine with a computer inside it. Error 53 is fueling a movement that would force Apple and other consumer products companies to grant easier access to the software inside their products. That way, any hobbyist or repair shop could fix these devices, not just manufacturers and their handpicked allies.

Error 53 is no accident. Apple designed the iPhone 6 to respond this way if somebody replaces the phone’s fingerprint sensor. At the factory, each sensor is synchronized with the rest of the iPhone. Now suppose you drop your iPhone and break the screen—a pretty common accident these days. In many cases, the fingerprint sensor is also damaged and must be replaced. No problem—shops around the world can fix it for you.

But if the shop isn’t officially authorized by Apple, it won’t have the ability to sync the phone with the new fingerprint sensor. At first, this only prevents the sensor from working. You can use a PIN number instead, and the rest of the iPhone is just fine. But when you install one of Apple’s routine software updates, along comes Error 53. Your phone’s locked down, permanently.

“This security measure is necessary to protect your device and prevent a fraudulent Touch ID sensor from being used,” said an e-mail sent to me by Apple.

But why deactivate the whole phone? And why not let all repair shops sync phones with sensors?

Angry consumers and technology activists think they know why. They say it’s just Apple’s way of freezing out low-cost repair shops, and routing all the business to authorized Apple stores.

And the backlash has begun. A Seattle law firm is rounding up angry iPhone owners in hopes of filing a class-action lawsuit over the practice. Meanwhile the saga of Error 53 may generate a surge of support for legislation pending in Massachusetts that could make it easier to get our gadgets fixed.

Remember the old “right to repair” fight. In 2012 voters in Massachusetts overwhelmingly supported a ballot initiative that forces carmakers to provide their diagnostic and repair data to independent repair shops. Other states started drafting similar measures. Then in 2013 the major carmakers got religion, and worked out a voluntary nationwide agreement with repair shops. Today, any car hobbyist or mom-and-pop garage can read the digital data spewed from a vehicle’s computers.

Massachusetts state Rep. Claire Cronin, a Democrat who represents Easton, wants a similar deal covering a vast array of digital devices. Electronics companies are running “basically a repair monopoly. Consumers and businesses who buy electronic products are forced to pay high prices to have their products fixed,” Cronin said. “I think the Apple Error 53 issue shines a light on this.”

In January of 2o15, she and the late state Senator Thomas P. Kennedy sponsored a bill to require companies to sell at reasonable prices the tools, parts and software needed to repair their digital gadgets, to anybody wishing to buy them. The bill now awaits action in the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure.

Lawmakers in New York, Minnesota and Nebraska have filed similar bills, with help from the Repair Association, a coalition of independent repair shops and civil liberties groups.

“If you own a piece of equipment, you should be able to repair it,” said director Gay Gordon-Byrne. “If you can’t get it repaired by any party other than Apple, you don’t really own your iPhone.”

It’s not just about smartphones. Until recently, farmers who’d like to make minor repairs to John Deere tractors couldn’t access the software that controls the machines. A federal copyright ruling has temporarily forced Deere & Co. to unlock the code, but the exemption is good for just three years. Gordon-Byrne is lobbying for a permanent change to federal law that would let people freely access and modify the software in any product we own.

These days that covers a lot of terrain. Our phones, cars, toys, appliances, even our homes are stuffed with chips and software. Who should have the final say on how we upgrade and repair these products—the manufacturer or the customer? Apple’s answer to the question is a major error.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at [email protected].
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