2020 Macs turned into landfill – change needed to Activation Lock

2020 Macs turned into landfill – change needed to Activation Lock

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Activation Lock is condemning even 2020 Macs to a future as spare parts and landfill, by making it impossible for them to be restored to use.

To be fair to Apple, the technology is only part of the problem – the other half is corporate policy in many companies that issue MacBooks to their employees – but it is an issue that only the Cupertino company can solve …

Activation Lock explainer

For anyone unfamiliar with it, Activation Lock was Apple’s clever solution to a longstanding problem: the attractiveness of iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks to thieves.

iPhones in particular were a common target for street theft because they are small, high-value items that were easy to sell.

Activation Lock solved this in a simple but clever way. Here’s how Apple describes it:

Activation Lock helps you keep your device secure, even if it’s in the wrong hands, and can improve your chances of recovering it. Even if you erase your device remotely, Activation Lock can continue to deter anyone from reactivating your device without your permission.

The company’s wording is surprisingly modest in describing it as a “deterrent” to reactivation when it is intended to be – and mostly succeeds in being – a block to reactivation by anyone who has your device without your permission.

Even when the device is completely wiped, it will still require your Apple ID login in order to switch off Find My and Activation Lock. Without that step, it’s bricked.

The idea is that by making it impossible for thieves or fences to activate the devices, that makes them far less likely to be stolen.

2020 Macs turned into landfill

There was already a problem for private sales of used Apple devices: Many sellers were unaware of Activation Lock, so sold devices without realizing the new owner would be confronted with a demand for the original owner’s Apple ID login during the setup process.

But the bigger problem is with corporate sales. Many companies replace their laptops every three to five years, and they write off the cost over that time period, so essentially their asset value to the company at the point of disposal is zero. They don’t want the hassle of maximizing resale value by selling them individually, so offload them in bulk to companies who would normally refurbish them for resale on the used computer market.

Making devices available for use by new owners is good for those making substantial savings through buying slightly older machines, and is good for the environment by ensuring the machines don’t go to waste.

But since Apple introduced Activation Lock to Macs, those resellers are often unable to activate them as new machines. Vice cites one such reseller, John Bumstead, who tweeted:

How many of you out there would like a 2-year-old M1 MacBook? Well, too bad, because your local recycler just took out all the Activation Locked logic boards and ground them up into carcinogenic dust.

Another repair/refurb shop agrees.

My company has recycled/tossed over 2,500 iCloud locked units in the last 2-3 years. We are just ONE shop. Imagine the total waste Apple has generated because of this.

For sales by individuals, Apple has made the process easier by allowing Activation Lock to be disabled during the new reset process in macOS Monterey. With this, you’ll be asked to authenticate with your Apple ID during the erasure process, rather than during the subsequent setup. You can thus leave the machine ready for the new owner to set up.

But there’s a different process for managed machines in enterprise companies, and Bumstead says that most are simply not motivated to do this – they just want the machines erased and gone.

Often the previous owners are corporations or schools who buy and sell the machines in bulk and aren’t interested in helping recyclers or refurbishers unlock them. “Previous owners do not return phone calls, and large corporations that dump 3,000 machines assume they have been destroyed,” Bumstead said.

Potential solution

Bumstead suggested one solution would be for Apple to develop a simple way for a new owner to request an unlock, verify that the original owner has no objection, and then go ahead.

“When we come upon a locked machine that was legally acquired, we should be able to log into our Apple account, enter the serial and any given information, then click a button and submit the machine to Apple for unlocking,” he said. “Then Apple could explore its records, query the original owner if it wants, but then at the end of the day if there are no red flags and the original owner does not protest within 30 days, the device should be auto-unlocked.”

That would require some work, and coordination. Apple would need to be able to submit the serial numbers to law enforcement and insurance companies, to ensure they are not registered as stolen. But those database checks could easily be automated, and there would be an audit trail by requiring resellers to register for access to the service.

This could even assist law enforcement, in that the exchange of serial numbers could be two-way. If the devices are not listed as stolen at the time the check is carried out, the serial numbers could be added to a separate database that would enable them to be tracked down if subsequently reported stolen.

No system is perfect, but it does seem to me that this would still provide sufficient protection against theft, while at the same time ensuring that perfectly good 2020 Macs don’t end up as landfill.

What’s your view? Should this change be made? Please take our poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.

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