Banning Parts Pairing Won’t Lead to More iPhone Theft
Right to Repair

Banning Parts Pairing Won’t Lead to More iPhone Theft

We’re well on the way to solving the biggest problems with repair access: Manufacturers selling in New York need to provide customers with parts, tools, and documentation—and soon in California and Minnesota, too. Throughout Europe, they have to provide repair materials to independent repair shops.

But parts pairing, the software barrier to repair that we’ve spilled a ton of ink (er, pixels) about, continues to rear its ugly head. And today, we want to put a popular myth to rest. Parts pairing doesn’t dissuade iPhone thieves. Banning it won’t lead to a big rash of iPhone thefts.

What’s the Problem with Parts Pairing?

In case you haven’t heard of parts pairing, here’s the short version: Manufacturers sometimes link parts to a device motherboard via little chips called microcontrollers. That lets them create an inventory of a device’s parts—which on its own is kinda cool and potentially really helpful for refurbished devices. We love the Steam Deck’s parts inventory, which lets you see the serial number and manufacturer for each part in your Deck right in your settings.

Results from our iPhone 15 parts swapping tests

The problem is when manufacturers use that information to artificially limit the functionality of a device or create fear-mongering warnings that scare people away from independent repair. In the iPhone 15, for instance, we swapped a bunch of parts between brand-new iPhone 15s and found that the selfie camera and sensors wouldn’t work at all, TrueTone and Auto Brightness were disabled, and screen and battery repairs would trigger repeated warnings, which in some cases couldn’t be dismissed. Again, that’s with brand new, OEM Apple parts from legitimately purchased devices. 

For refurbishers and independent repair shops, parts pairing deeply harms business. Harvested parts from broken devices like displays, cameras, and buttons can’t be reused. Customers are disappointed by lost functionality and scared away by the unnecessary and persistent warnings about unidentified parts. This results in less business for refurbishers and repairers, more phones being thrown away with lots of potentially useful parts, and (of course) more Apple sales.

To be clear, parts pairing goes far beyond Apple—we’ve seen it in everything from chainsaws to tractors. But in consumer electronics, Apple’s by far the worst parts pairing offender.

Apple’s Right to Repair Support Ends at Parts Pairing

Parts pairing is the culprit behind Apple’s second big about-face on Right to Repair. 

Apple announced public nationwide support for Right to Repair in the US at the end of last year, after they came on to support California’s Right to Repair bill, which passed in October 2023 and goes into effect in July 2024. That’s after nearly a decade of very expensive lobbying against the issue, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in California alone. 

But earlier this month, Apple sent a representative to testify against the Right to Repair bill currently in the Oregon statehouse. They’re fully in favor, they say—except for banning parts pairing. The parts pairing ban currently in the Oregon draft legislation would require Apple to stop blocking True Tone, Auto Brightness, and battery health after third-party repairs. It would require them to give iPhone owners a path for completing a repair of a selfie camera, even if they didn’t buy the part from Apple.

It shouldn’t—contrary to the common misconception—result in a rash of iPhone thefts.

Smartphone theft is a real, sucky problem. 1 in 10 U.S. smartphone owners have had a phone stolen, and smartphones are now about 10x more valuable per ounce than solid silver. Having your phone stolen is stressful, expensive, and can have huge intangible consequences. People whose phones are stolen sometimes lose photos and videos that they can never get back (don’t forget to back up, friends).

But the truth is: Parts pairing doesn’t prevent theft. The system that enables parts pairing is a totally separate system from the one Apple uses to lock stolen devices. Thieves who want to part your iPhone out aren’t deterred by parts pairing, as explained below.

Activation Lock Is Not Parts Pairing

iPhone thefts are largely deterred through two systems, one managed by Apple and the other managed by cell network carriers. 

Activation Lock, managed by Apple, gets turned on automatically when you activate “Find My” on your iPhone. Every time an Apple device is turned on, it phones home to the mothership and checks to see if the device is Activation Locked. If the lock is enabled, your iPhone won’t function and will require your Apple ID and password before turning off Find My, erasing your device, or reactivating your device. It’s super effective: When Apple introduced Activation Lock with iOS 7, iPhone theft fell by 50% in London, 40% in San Francisco, and 25% in New York.

The second technical answer to discouraging iPhone theft is the carrier blacklist. Carriers run checks against the GSM Association database of stolen phone serial numbers (IMEIs). Any phone that has been blacklisted cannot be used with a carrier that checks against the database.

The parts pairing ban proposed in Oregon would leave both these systems intact, functioning exactly as they do now. We still think that Apple should provide a way for legitimate refurbishers to end Activation Lock (MacBook refurbisher and longtime iFixit Answers volunteer John Bumstead proposed a pretty good solution in an interview with Vice last year)—but a ban on parts pairing won’t touch that system.

And parts pairing doesn’t stop anyone from selling/using parts from Activation Locked or carrier blacklisted devices.

A stack of locked MacBooks in John Bumstead's refurbishment shop
A stack of Activation Locked MacBooks in John Bumstead’s workshop

Parts Pairing Doesn’t Kill Resale Value of Parts

If parts pairing was intended to prevent the sale of parts from stolen phones, it would operate something like this: When the stolen part was put in a phone, a “stolen part” notification would come up, with information about the stolen device that could be reported to authorities. Apple has enough information in serialized parts that such a system should be technically feasible—the part’s microcontroller is recorded as linked to a device in their database. They could run a check for every part against their Activation Lock database. 

But that’s not how it works. In fact, the only limitations on parts from Activation Locked or carrier blacklisted devices are exactly the same limitations on third-party and swapped parts. Which is to say: A stolen battery will power your phone, with some pop-up warnings (that say nothing about it being stolen). A stolen screen will work just fine, except for True Tone and Auto Brightness. These limitations don’t mark the part as stolen and won’t raise red flags for someone unknowingly buying stolen parts secondhand. The stolen parts will look and work just like any other legitimate secondhand or third-party parts.

Plus, any dedicated iPhone chop shop will almost certainly have microcontroller reprogrammers. You can buy a device that will let you reset the IMEI linked to individual Apple parts and get around most iPhone parts pairing altogether. We don’t see this as a solution to the problem of parts pairing for DIY repair and refurbishment, because it’s expensive, highly technical, and pretty sketchy. We won’t link to any of these devices, but they’re widely available and undoubtedly “worth it” for any iPhone theft ring. And there are lots of those—maybe you saw the darkly funny story in December about some thieves who returned an Android because it wasn’t an iPhone.

Phone Theft Is a Social Engineering Game Today

Generally speaking, iPhone thieves don’t care about parts pairing. They can sell your phone’s parts anyway if it comes down to it, but really, their goal is to get into your Apple ID. Your phone has the most value if they can wipe it, and the only way they can do that (thanks to Activation Lock) is if they have your real device passcode or your Apple ID password. 

Wall Street Journal reporter Joanna Stern did a deep dive into iPhone theft a couple months ago, and she found that most iPhone theft rings operate via social engineering. The main game is to get the device passcode—at which point, the thieves can reset the phone without a problem. How do thieves get it? “I just watch them put it in,” said Aaron Johnson, currently in a high-security prison for iPhone theft. He would go to nightclubs and bars and tell people that he had drugs for sale. He’d ask partiers to add him on Snapchat and watch them put in their own passcodes. Later, he or a friend would swipe the phone, then wipe the phone, too soon for Activation Lock.

Oregon’s Right to Repair Bill Won’t Lead to More iPhone Theft

In short, the fear that banning parts pairing might lead to more iPhone theft is based on a misunderstanding about how Apple and cell phone carriers more broadly work to prevent theft. Parts pairing doesn’t currently deter the vast majority of thieves, and banning it would leave the more important Activation Lock and carrier blacklist systems intact.

But a parts pairing ban would be a huge boon to independent repair shops and DIY repairers, who frequently run into unnecessarily limited functionality.

Whether or not the bill passes in Oregon, parts pairing has a limited lifespan: The EU Parliament and Council just released the text of an agreement on Right to Repair that bans “software techniques” that “impede the use of original or second-hand spare parts, compatible spare parts and spare parts issued from 3D-printing, by independent repairers.” When that comes into force, parts pairing will be illegal throughout the EU. (And theft, by the way, was never debated in the context of this provision.)

If you’re in Oregon, tell your legislators why you want the Right to Repair—including a ban on parts pairing. Everywhere else, find a Right to Repair advocacy network near you.