Friday, February 19, 2016

Why Error 53 and the Apple Fight against the FBI is actually Good News for Consumers

There has been a lot of pressure on Apple lately with the US government pushing for access to their systems and lots of public pressure as people react to the “Error 53” scandal.

To many people’s surprise, Apple has dug their heels in on these issues and as the pressure mounts, is showing no signs of relenting. Normally I would be up on my soapbox denouncing this seemingly anti-competitive behaviour but this time I think that Apple is right to make a stand.

In the past, some of the things Apple did seemed to be mean spirited. For example; changing from the 30 pin plugs to lightning cable, and then blocking third party cables unless they were “Apple approved” (ie: paying royalties and super-expensive).

I know that they had their reasons for those changes, particularly safety, usability, size and speed but for people with stereo equipment that has 30 pin plugs, it still hurts - and no, adapters aren't a good solution.

Apple was mostly wrong then but despite the fact that the “bricking” of phones under error 53 is far worse, it's the right move.

So What is Error 53?
If you're unaware of Error 53, it's a status that gets checked and set when you update to iOS 9.

So, If you’ve had your iPhone 6 repaired by a non-Apple shop, it may have been working well for a while but when you do the iOS 9 update, it dies. In fact, it dies unrecoverably and permanently. 

Understandably people are upset about this but after contacting Apple, they have been told that this is a "feature" and that the behaviour is intentional. Naturally, the consumer groups are now getting involved in several countries.

You can read about it here;

As I mentioned earlier, I'm okay with this. The only thing that I have a problem with is that Apple didn't provide any warning about this.

What is the FBI vs Apple Thing About?
On the surface, the Apple vs FBI thing is all about the FBI wanting access to the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, the gunman who was responsible for the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack. Below the surface however, this is an attempt by the FBI to set a precedent for Apple (and all tech companies) to build backdoors into their systems.

You can read about it all here;

On the surface, these seem to be two entirely separate events but both concern Apple and both concern security and privacy. It's a very big deal.

Why is it good that Apple is fighting for Security?
Moving away from Apple for a moment....

A lot of changes have occurred in the payments landscape in recent years. For example, we got automated checkouts at our shops. It was pretty cool. We were able to buy food and beep it through the registers ourselves.  Then, overnight (or so it seemed), these devices started offering cash out.

Suddenly, these automated checkouts stopped being simple "shopping systems" and turned into fully fledged ATMs. 

In most countries around the world, the ATM network is pretty strictly monitored. After all, you can't just have any old technician rocking up to fix them.  They have much higher security requirements. ATM's can be very dangerous devices. We all know what can happen if a criminal gets a chance to do maintenance on an ATM.... card skimming.

So, back to Apple....  unfortunately the iPhone doesn't actually dispense cash.... but with recent changes, it has become a payment method. Suddenly we're expecting the banks, the merchants and the consumers to trust Apple with their payment data.

In order for Apple to be trusted as a payments platform, they need to be able to prove that their hardware and software cannot be compromised.

Making a public stand against the FBI will certainly help Apple along the way to consumer and vendor "trust". Regular software security patches will consolidate this position.

As to hardware; Apple has a problem that most ATM and EFTPOS device manufacturers don't have. Apple's devices don't belong to a store, they're not wall mounted and they're not wired into desks. Apple's devices are personal, they're constantly moving and changing ownership.

The best way to assure the world that their hardware is protected, is to "brick it" whenever suspicious activity is detected - and that's exactly what Apple has done with Error 53.   If you mess with the devices biometrics (make a change to the fingerprint scanner), the phone will become inoperable... permanently.

... and it's for our own good.

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