I’m sure you’ve all seen this story by now.
Thousands of iPhone 6 users claim they have been left holding almost worthless phones because Apple’s latest operating system permanently disables the handset if it detects that a repair has been carried out by a non-Apple technician.
Now, when I first glanced at this story on Twitter, my immediate reaction was to share the natural sense of outrage expressed by other commentators. After all, it seems to be a breach of natural justice that if you have purchased a phone and then had it repaired, it is still your phone you should still be able to use it.
I have my Volvo fixed by someone who isn’t a Volvo dealer and it works perfectly. The plumber who came round to fix the leak in our bathroom a couple of weeks ago doesn’t work for the company that built the house, nor did he install the original pipes and he has never fixed anything in or house before. (He did an excellent job, by the way, so hats off to British Gas HomeCare).
If you read on however, I’m afraid the situation is not so clear-cut and I have some sympathy for Apple’s actions, even though I think they chose the wrong way to handle the obvious problem. Obvious problem? Yes.
The issue appears to affect handsets where the home button, which has touch ID fingerprint recognition built-in, has been repaired by a “non-official” company or individual.
Now you can see the obvious problem. If you’re using your phone to make phone calls and the screen is broken then what does it matter who repairs the screen as long as they repair it properly. But if you’re using your phone to authenticate access to financial services using touch ID then it’s pretty important that no one has messed around with the touch ID sensor to, for example, store copies of your fingerprint templates for later replay under remote control. The parts of the phone that other organisations are depending on as part of their security infrastructure (e.g., the SIM) are not just components of the phone like any other component because they feature in somebody else’s risk analysis. In my opinion, Apple is right to be concerned. Charles Arthur just posted a detailed discussion of what is happening.
TouchID (and so Apple Pay and others) don’t work after a third-party fix that affects TouchID. The pairing there between the Secure Element/Secure Enclave/TouchID, which was set up when the device was manufactured, is lost.
Bricking people’s phones when they detect an “incorrect” touch ID device in the phone is the wrong response though. All Apple has done is make people like me wonder if they should really stick with Apple for their next phone because I do not want to run the risk of my phone being rendered useless because I drop it when I’m on holiday need to get it fixed right away by someone who is not some sort of official repairer.
What Apple should have done is to flag the problem to the parties who are relying on the risk analysis (including themselves). These are the people who need to know if there is a potential change in the vulnerability model. So, for example, it would seem to me to be entirely reasonable in the circumstances to flag the Simple app and tell it that the integrity of the touch ID system can no longer be guaranteed and then let the Simple app make its own choice as to whether to continue using touch ID (which I find very convenient) or make me type in my PIN, or use some other kind of strong authentication, instead. Apple’s own software could also pick up the flag and stop using touch ID. After all… so what?
Touch ID, remember, isn’t a security technology. It’s a convenience technology. If Apple software decides that it won’t use Touch ID because it may have been compromised, that’s fine. I can live with entering my PIN instead of using my thumbprint. The same is true for all other applications. I don’t see why apps can’t make their own decision.
Apple is right to take action when it sees evidence that the security of the touch ID subsystem can no longer be guaranteed, but surely the action should be to communicate the situation and let people choose how to adjust their risk analysis?