Apple's iPhone Bricking Is Legal and Technical BS

Click to viewApple has told us that—first—unlocking software causes "irreparable damage" to the iPhone and—second—this "will likely result" in a "permanently inoperable" device in the future. Is this true or is Apple trying to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt among potential unlocked-iPhone users? The short answer: Yes, it's FUD on both accounts. We've worked with the Dev Team and lawyers to bring you the technical explanation and the potential legal consequences of Apple's move.

The iPhone Unlocking vs Apple FAQ

Does unlocking software cause "irreparable damage" to the iPhone?

No, it doesn't. The only thing that the anySim software does is modify part of the firmware so it's not limited to use only AT&T SIM cards. Modify is not "damaging." It just means that specific values in the seczone have been replaced by others. Technically, according to the Dev Team:

It modifies the firmware to accept any given nck to open the phone for any carrier. This causes the phone to write a bogus values into the seczone as an unlock token.

This means that values can be written and changed back to their original state easily, just as easily as they were originally changed to allow the unlock.

Could Apple have been able to upgrade iPhones without the likely possibility of bricking the iPhone? (According to Apple, their firmware will likely and "permanently" make the device "inoperable.")

Yes, it could have been done. As someone in the Dev Team core puts it:

Apple has multiple ways of upgrading the [firmware of the] baseband [radio chip] without committing a 500,000-phone massacre.

First, they can issue a secpack [security pack] for everything in the firmware. They could simply issue one of these to restore the value if a regular token is not detected, thus rewriting this part to its original state. This process would most likely defeat any unlock available, Dev Team or iPhone Sim Free, without bricking the iPhone in any way.

New firmware updates could also employ new firmware which closes the loophole that allows the use of a secpack for other operations. They could make this method of updating even resistant to tampering or abuse for a unlock. The possibilities are there.

So yes, as you can see, Apple could do the described operation, changing the values back to its original state then forcing a restore to factory of the whole firmware.

Is the total bricking a real possibility?

It's not clear if Apple will finally brick or not the iPhone in the next update. Or what they mean with "permanently inoperable." The Dev Team speculates that "it won't be a true bricking at all. The firmware would probably roll back to a default state similar to its state after manufacturing. This state is indicated by a lost IMEI number, which results in the iPhone being unusable with any network."

In fact, this is what you will get if you flash a retail firmware in any phone that has been previously updated.

But is this problem permanent?

No, it's not. The problem is not permanent and can be reverted, as the Dev Team points out:

Currently this state is easy to fix, but future [hardware] updates will just close the flashing flaw and let you alone with your factory-like phone.

After the bricking, can Apple provide a way to revert iPhones to factory status and re-lock iPhones, patching them so the current unlock solution can't be applied?

Yes, definitely. See above. If the iPhone Dev Team hackers can do it, working with no documentation, Apple engineers can do exactly the same.

Will the iPhone Dev Team revert the iPhone to its original state

Yes, they have said before they are working on this and they have code already written to do so.

This code, however, won't unlock the iPhone again, it'll just revert it to factory state. New unlocking software may come soon thereafter. There's more information on this, but we can't use it in this article yet.

Knowing all this, what could be the legal consequences? Could Apple get sued for damaging private property, consciously knowing that their update will brick unlocked cellphones unnecessarily?

While they can get sued, the lawsuit will hardly prosper. Apple is very well covered by their warranty text. Here's what our legal advisor had to say on the matter:

As far as I have read, the software unlock will permit the phone to operate outside of Apple's intended use, i.e. on another network. Arguably, the US iPhone was designed (firmware included) to operate only on the ATT network.

The warranty says: "This warranty does not apply: (a) to damage caused by use with non- Apple products; (b) to damage caused by accident, abuse, misuse, flood, fire, earthquake or other external causes; (c) to damage caused by operating the product outside the permitted or intended uses described by Apple."

The question is then whether unlocking/installing third party software on the phone "damages" the phone. It's clear that physical alteration of the phone to allow it to connect to another network (like the hardware unlock method) will void the warranty.

However, damage to the phone does not necessarily exclude firmware/software hacks. Apple could claim to "void" the warranty if the phone is returned to the apple store in an unlocked state if alterations are made to the firmware, thus allowing it operate outside of its intended use (i.e. on the AT&T network) or installing third party applications (after all, apple's intended use of the product did NOT include installation of 3rd party products.)

If, as you claim, the phone could be returned to its natural state before service, then I would recommend everyone return the phone to its factory state before any service is made to avoid a flag in apple's hardware database of a "void warranty for intentional damage.

How does the DMCA Library of Congress' exception protecting consumers to unlock their telephone work in this case?

It doesn't. The provision only applies in the case Apple decides to sue you in the name of copyright infringement. So you are free to unlock your iPhone and not be prosecuted under the DMCA but Apple is also free to void the warranty of your product. According to Giz's unofficial legal advisor:

The DMCA provision that everyone loves to cite allows circumvention of device controls "for the sole purpose of lawfully connecting to a wireless telephone communication network..." that allows an unlock applies only to claims of copyright infringement —not warranty claims.

Could Apple legally void the warranty of a hardware product because you install or modify software in it? (basically, this is what the unlock and installing third-party apps do)

Yes, as you can see above, Apple can. At least, unless someone decides to sue the pants out of Apple in a class-action suit and they are forced to negotiate —something that could be possible, given the PR storm that may come from this mess, even if Apple is in solid legal ground and it is impossible to prove malicious intent with hard proof. As our lawyer points out:

Apple is under no obligation to support any third party "updates" to their phone. Once the device has been taken out of the realm of original specifications (including the original Apple-developed firmware/software), Apple is under no obligation to provide any support to the product.

I've also been hearing claims of "Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act" violations regarding the iPhone on the part of Apple. From Wikipedia: "The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act (P.L. 93-637) is a United States federal law (15 U.S.C. § 2301 et seq.). Enacted in 1975, it is the federal statute that governs warranties on consumer products." Apple can by-pass these violations because they apply only to products that fail to conform to the original written warranty. As described above, the original written warranty will only apply to unmodified iPhones. Once the radio firmware on the iPhone is altered, it is operating outside of Apple's intended use and outside of the realm of the original warranty.

Could Apple have maliciously broken or not taken action once it discovered the "bricking" nature of the update?

Here's our lawyer answer:

Apple can update the phone as it sees fit as long as the updates do not breach the original terms of the warranty. Proving Apple's intent isn't realistically possible. In theory, Apple and AT&T seek to protect their revenue stream and there is plenty of intent to brick non AT&T iPhones, however, proving such malicious intent is exceptionally difficult. Given that the product is being used outside of its normal design specifications—used on AT&T network— all damage caused to the iPhone by Apple updates will arguably be the end user's fault.

Would a lawsuit hold up?

As you can see, probably not.

In any case, if the rumors are true, we will probably see the update late today or tomorrow. It seems like the battle was won, but the iPhone wars have just started.