Apple's extension of "Activation Locks" to laptops will turn refurbishable electronics into e-waste

"Activation Lock" is a tool that uses Apple's trusted computing hardware to render systems inoperable if you don't have a login/password; nominally, this is used for theft-deterrence, but when Apple product owners fail to disable Activation Lock when they dispose of their equipment, it becomes effectively impossible to refurbish or repair, dooming it to become e-waste.

This is exacerbated by Apple's own poor documentation and UI for Activation Lock, which is most prominently documented in a brief mention at the bottom of this support page. Many users are unaware of Activation Lock, and it's easy to overlook disabling it when wiping and disposing of a device.

Activation Lock has been an Iphone-only feature, but as of this fall, Mac laptops equipped with the T2 security chip and running Apple's "Catalina" OS will have Activation Lock on by default, which means that a ton of Apple computers are about to join Apple's phones on the scrapheap.

Activation Lock goes beyond the firmware lock that some Apple laptops have used to date -- repairers have been able to bypass firmware locks with a complicated procedure (using special tools similar to those that Apple has previously characterized as illegal under Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which bans bypassing DRM), but that won't work for Activation Lock.

Peter Schindler of the repair advocacy group The Wireless Alliance suggests that Apple could fix this by giving certified refurbishers unlock codes for the T2 chip (Apple is able to unlock T2/Activation Lock lockups in its own repair centers). He also says that of the thousands of Activation Locked phones he receives and discards every year, only a tiny number are stolen, and these are rarely reunited with their owners.

Last January, Apple CEO Tim Cook warned investors that the company's profits were threatened by customers who were choosing to repair/refurbish their equipment rather than replacing it.

In cases when a device is lost or stolen, Schindler says he’s more than happy to hand it off to law enforcement in order to find the owner, but that’s a rare occurrence. And reuniting the owner with their device is an even rarer occurrence. That’s a shame, because the intent of the lock is to protect owners from theft. Refurbishers would be happy to return stolen devices if they had the means to contact the original owner, or verify that it was stolen with the police or a mobile carrier.

If Apple doesn’t fix the problem, refurbishers may take action. With the help of various organizations, like the EFF, U.S. PIRG, and iFixit, Schindler is considering filing a DMCA exemption request if Apple won’t voluntarily come up with a solution. “They’re preventing us from re-using what is rightfully our property,” he says. “It’s not lost or stolen.”

But for the time being, education is the best solution we have, and that’s an area where Apple could do better. Owners getting rid of their older Apple devices need to make sure they’re factory resetting their iPhones, iPads, and Macs. Or at the very least, turning off Find My iPhone/iPad/Mac. Until then, recycling and refurbishing centers like Schindler’s will be forced to scrap thousands of perfectly working devices every single month.

Apple’s Activation Lock Will Make It Very Difficult to Refurbish Macs [Craig Lloyd/Ifixit]