What’s All This About the iPhone and “Error 53?”

Every now and then, some issue with the iPhone makes it to the evening news. Here in the UK last night, the BBC discussed the Error 53 that has been reported by many people recently, explaining why it occurs and what to do.

This has been happening for months, but it seems that only since the latest iOS 9 update has there been a critical mass of users affected. This error occurs to iPhones that have been repaired by third-party repair services. If you update such a phone to a new version of iOS, or restore it, and when iOS detects that the Touch ID sensor does not match the other components of the phone, the phone is disabled for security reasons.

Apple explained this to The Guardian:

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.

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.

Essentially, the iPhone checks to make sure the home button matches what is recorded in the device’s ROM. If you had the home button replaced by a third-party repair service, it won’t match, because these companies are probably not able to write the necessary information to the phone’s ROM.

Apple has has a technical document entitled If you see error 53 or can’t update or restore your iPhone or iPad explaining what to do. If your device was, indeed, repaired by Apple, get in touch with them. If not, you may need to pay Apple to fix it, replacing the home button.

I’ve always felt the home button was fragile, and that Apple should move to a soft home button, as you find on Android and Windows phones. I’ve seen iPhones where the home button no longer works, which makes it a bit difficult to use the device. It seems that the home button is breaking on many iPhones, and people are going to third-party repair services to get it fixed. These companies are being dishonest, since they should be aware that their repairs could cause problems with the phones down the line.

The cost of repairing an iPhone out of warranty, for a phone with a Touch ID home button, ranges from $269 to $329. If you’ve got an iPhone that is out of warranty – the iPhone 5s and 6 are the only models that have Touch ID, and that may be out of warranty – then the cost may be prohibitive.

Apple is right to protect your data in this way; this is an essential security feature of the iPhone. But they need to better communicate the reason for this to users.

Update: See The Macalope’s article on Macworld for more details on this issue, and something about penguins…