Who Owns the Keys to Your Apple Device? (Hint: It May Not Be You)

As Apple becomes the center of the digital ecosystem for many of its users, we find ourselves entrusting our most precious and private information to Apple. With iCloud, we're storing pictures, music and data. With Apple Pay, we're handing over credit card information and credit histories. And with Apple ID, we're asking apple to keep login information for our iPhone, iPad, Apple Air, iMac and Apple TV. Mostly this log in scheme works well -- but every now and then, one can encounter a problem or a bug. Just how does Apple deal with that? Herein lies a cautionary tale.

I have an iPad Mini that I've used --and loved -- for many years. It's in great shape, and so I decided it was time to sell it and upgrade to the latest model. No rush just wanted to keep current with Apple's new OS and faster processors.

The sale of the iPad went without a hitch -- just posted on Craigslist, and the next day I had it sold. The new owner was happy, and i too, my newfound cash off to the Apple Store to buy a new iPad. It wasn't until hours later that I got a call from the new owner. She was unable to log in and set up the device, it was in "locked" mode. No worries, I promised her, I'd get it sorted out with Apple and she'd be on her way.

I won't waste your time with the blow by blow of what has now been my 12 contacts with apple and 20 hours on the phone. Here are some highlights.

Call 1: "Don't worry, just wait eight hours and log in again you'll be fine."

Call 2: Manager: "This is a problem we see every holiday, just wait 24 hours and try again."

Call 3: Senior Advisor: "This is odd -- you're device has no Apple ID; it's a bug."

Call 4: Manager: "Have you restarted? Is it stolen? Did you buy it in the U.S.?"

- Answer: I have the receipt -- bought it in NY.

- The new owner has waited two days now, and wants their money back (they think it's stolen). I return the money, and have the device back in my hands.

Email 5: December 14

"I would like to let you know the report has been submitted and I received the POP (Proof of Purchase) Please remember that these kinds of issues may take time to get processed but as soon as I received any news I will let you know."

Kris-Anthony Smith
iOS Senior Advisor

Call 6: Manager: "Clearly this is a bug -- but often there's nothing we can do but escalate it to engineering."

Email 7: December 17

"I apologize for the delay in processing your issue but I have not received a reply for your request as yet. As I mentioned last time these issues could take several days to get reviewed. Also, whenever an account is in lost mode as in your case, we really cannot do anything about the activation lock. However, I just wanted to submit request with the idea that the lost mode was unauthorized and see what happens. I just want to let you know that there is a great chance of the request to turn off activation being denied but let up keep our fingers crossed."

Kris-Anthony Smith
iOS Senior Advisor

Email 8: December 17

"I do agree that this is kind of confusing so let me explain. Under normal circumstances, we are able to process your proof of purchase and remove an activation lock but your account is in lost mode. Typically, we cannot unlock an account that is in lost mode even if we have a proof of purchase. However, there are some cases where malicious entities may be keeping an account ransom and they would place a customer's account in lost mode. These reason I submitted your request is to see if your account fell under that category, but the activation team would have to approve the request. Let me know if you have further questions."

Kris-Anthony Smith
iOS Senior Advisor

Call 9: Manager: "Yes, clearly this is our problem -- but the engineers aren't responsive to this kind of problem."

Apple Store (Genius Bar)10: 12/20 "Wow -- yeah, you clearly own this device and it's clearly 'lost' as a bug -- but there's really nothing we can do other than putting in a ticket."

Call 11: "We're still waiting -- but no promises."

Email 12: December 24 (it's been 10 days)

"Hey Steve, Nothing yet. These kinds of requests can take a while to process. Thanks,
Kris-Anthony Smith, iOS Senior Advisor."

The summary is -- while I own the device, Apple owns the keys. And if I'm locked out, then the device is worthless. Until now, my support experience with Apple has been extraordinary. And when I suggested to a "Senior iOS Rep" that if this device has a bug that meant it had lost its Apple ID, then they should take it back, give me credit, and find out what the bug was, he agreed and offered to propose that to a Customer Rep. Then he hung up, and even though he had taken my number, didn't call back.

So, my iPad is held hostage by Apple. Even in person, in the store, with a long history of purchases and an identity (I showed them my drivers license and my receipt from that store), Apple seems to have no clear escalation process to managed a device that loses track of it's Apple ID.

So, why do I care? And more importantly, why should you? If you lose your credit card, or you think the card's security has been compromised, your bank knows how to deal with that. They shut off your card, they ship you a new card overnight, but they understand that access to your credit is critical. You pay your bills, your accounts are tied to it. Apple is rapidly moving to have that level of control of your life. With Apple Pay, they need to be concerned about any breach of security, but at the same time, they also must provide clear, responsive, and transparent security that quickly responds to any situations that include fraud, lost devices, or bugs that inadvertently lock customers out of their content and devices.

Cleary security is important, but asking customers to "cross their fingers" while a mysterious one-way requested is filed to an "activation team" seems more like corporate double speak than customer support.

Can Apple explain their policy for unlocking locked devices? I reached out to media relations to see what they had to say.

I asked them five questions:

  1. Does Apple have a policy when a device is put in 'lost' mode?
  2. Why is it that store genius bar employees and phone support has no visibility into how devices can be recovered?
  3. Is "cross your fingers" an appropriate response from an iOS Senior Advisor?
  4. Under what circumstance would Apple take 10 days - with no path to resolution - for a customer with a locked device?
  5. Is this a bug, a customer issue, or some other issue at Apple that is being addressed?

I got no response from media relations, instead getting a call from "Corporate Executive Relations" offering to help. In the end, the device was unlocked "as a courtesy" but the questions about ownership and the line between a bug and a policy remain unanswered.

Has this happened to you? Have you had issues with Apple ID or locked devices. I'd be interested to learn how widespread an issue this is, so post in the comments if you have a story to share.