Activation Lock

Apple’s Activation Lock is Bogus

Activation Lock is a service in Apple’s iOS and iOS compatible devices that (when enabled), keeps a device from being set up or reinstalled while still registered in Apple’s iCloud. I recently faced an iPad Mini that was legitimately owned but mostly bricked because of this feature. I’ll show you how to get around this, and why it’s one of Apple’s worst ideas.

As I pondered in 2013 1, my feeling was that this new technology’s promise was being overshadowed by it’s potential for problems. Serious problems. If you follow most of the basic paths for resetting iOS devices, activation lock is usually not an issue, but this service fails to consider outliers.

How does one use a device that cannot disable activation lock? There is a hack (of sorts) that uses DNS Servers to push a captive portal onto your screen, and then in that website, you can go to places such as YouTube, Facebook and even an iOS-like emulator. It can be frustrating at times because if the screen is closed, you have to power off the device and start it again.

While this does bring a number of capabilities to an otherwise useless device, it leaves much to be desired overall, and the underlying operating system and a number of hardware features are unusable. 2

My experience with almost four years of this brutal protection service generally falls into two scenarios:

The iOS device is sold into the “grey” market. The seller forgets to disable “Find my iPhone” and is easily contacted to help resolve the problem. Generally, the device needs to be logged into with the correct AppleID, or the device must be removed from Apple’s iCloud service.

I’ve even been foolish enough to sell a device and forget this. Not long after I sold an iPad, I received a message asking for help. I then removed the device from my account and the buyer was all good. This was an inconvenience but no big problem.

The device is sold fast and very transient. The seller either forgets at the moment to turn off the service or does not have time to do so. The seller cannot be contacted. I imagine this happens a lot to travellers. Someone might find themselves in an airport owning an iPad and in need of some money. Two people make a deal for the purchase and the seller boards her plane.

Naturally, theft is the common “other” scenario where a locked iOS device finds itself in the hands of a person who can’t unlock it. This is bad, though I’m not talking about this case. I’m sure thieves’ thin activation lock sucks too.

Why the activation lock is a problem

  1. It adds to Apple’s already insane levels of profit. Users that have a device that is locked find themselves with a very expensive piece of garbage. They resort to a limited hack or throw it out only to buy another.
  2. Grey markets in poorer countries or remote places cannot adequately respond. If you were to have donated an iPad to someone in the Dominican and forgot the lock, this becomes an immediate brick to the person you gave it to. Apple support is not an option.
  3. With a fully restored device, the activation lock screen shows little of the user’s AppleID. 3 This makes it next to impossible to contact an unknown past owner for assistance.
  4. It doesn’t protect your device in a positive way. Thieves may be tracked down with the GPS/Find My iPhone service, but I’m sure thieves know exactly where they stand with locked devices and are ok with it. Even with limitations, they’ll probably turn it off and sell it anyway. This service does nothing to bring the device back to you.

There’s no way to really know how many devices are out there stuck in activation lock purgatory. They’ll still be operational by way of a DNS hack but will never regain full use of the hardware. I consider the group of users who own iOS devices but locked to perhaps be the biggest group of forgotten Apple customers.

Apple can ease all of this if they provided some legitimate and automated means of unlocking. Even better, they should just remove the activation lock from iOS entirely. It’s really not Apple’s job to determine if something is stolen (unless reported to be). Claiming that the activation lock protects users from theft is disingenuous.

Update: It’s incredible how things can be perceived. Not long after this article hits the Internet, I have a commenter who clearly disagrees with me, and then it all draws me down a rabbit hole. First, I see that I’m mention in a Podcast. Then, the podcast takes me to a Google Plus community (really, who uses this anymore?).  I was mentioned in a scrum of apparent Apple lovers (can you tell they’re American?) where the first thing they do is call me an idiot; even before reading this article. In fact, I don’t think any of these folks fully read this thing. What I find most amusing is that these very insulting people are that they actually agree with me “It could be improved” even with conditions. They then write off the problem as “a few people forgot who their passcodes”. Well, as I’ve mentioned, I don’t know how many Apple iDevices are in this type of locked “purgatory”, and I doubt anyone keeps statistics on this. If we did know, we’d see how this is a bigger problem than previously thought.

Probably the most amusing comment – which shows what I’m working with – comes from Rod Hagglund, where he says this:

Talk about “disingenuous”: if you buy an iPad from a stranger in an airport who approached you claiming to need money, you deserve to find it is bricked!

Indeed. Brick all devices bought and sold between individuals. In fact, why don’t we scrap commerce altogether? Maybe this guy isn’t a fan of money either? And, I’m the idiot.

Should activation lock be scrapped? If it can’t be improved greatly, I think so. If something is a problem, even if it has done good, we still should seek to improve it.

Subscribing to my newsletter might help you the next time you see activation lock.

  1. 2013, was when activation lock was announced)

  2. There are sites that also offer an unlocking service, but the efficacy of these is dubious.

  3. If I recall, this lock screen shows the first letter of the email address and the domain. That’s it. You don’t even get to know how long the email address is.