What is Activation Lock?
Activation Lock, also known as iCloud Lock, is a feature that was introduced to Apple iPhones in iOS version 7 on September 18, 2013.i It is a feature that is part of the Find My application which is innately connected to a user’s iCloud account. After using the Find My application on an Apple device or web browser, a user can execute a remote wipe on a device that is connected to a user’s Apple ID, which erases all of its content and settings. After the device is completely wiped, Activation Lock causes the device to become inaccessible and requires the original owner to log in with their Apple ID information to be granted access.
Activation Lock is not only available for iPhones. The feature is also available on Apple Watches running watchOS 2, which came out on September 21, 2015, as well as Mac computers running macOS Catalina or later that have newer T2 security chips, which came out on December 14, 2017.i
How does Activation Lock work?
If an Apple product has the Find My application installed with an iCloud account linked, Activation Lock is enabled by default. Apple records the device and links the associated Apple ID with the device via their activation servers. Anytime that a compatible Apple product is activated or recovered, the device communicates with Apple to verify if Activation Lock is enabled on the Apple ID account. If it is, the device prompts the user to log in with the associated Apple ID.ii
Benefits of Activation Lock
Activation Lock is especially useful in the case that a device is lost or stolen. In certain situations, this feature works well in conjunction with remote wiping. To remotely wipe a device, one can open the Find My app, choose the linked device, and select “Erase This Device”. This would cause an Activation Lock to become enabled once the device is completely wiped. It ensures that no personal information is located on the device, as well as prevents thieves from using or selling stolen devices. This is because they would be unable to log in to the device, as you would need the original owner’s Apple ID. Then, if the device was returned to the original owner, they would be able to log in and use their (now wiped) Apple product.
The Problem with Activation Lock
If an Apple product is in a locked state, there is currently no way of utilizing it unless you know the Apple ID associated with it. This means that even if you want to reset a device to use or sell, you are unable to if you are not the original owner. This can be an issue in the second-hand market, as used Apple devices may be sold with the Activation Lock feature enabled. On top of that, locked devices that are unable to be utilized will end up scrapped as e-waste. This is alarming, as newer Apple products, such as MacBooks and iPhones, are being thrown out because Activation Lock is enabled.iii
Removing Activation Lock
The process of removing Activation Lock is intuitive if you know the Apple ID and password that is associated with the device. You simply input the Apple ID and password which disables the Activation Lock. The device will then continue with the normal first-time setup. If you are the original owner of the device but do not remember your Apple ID login information, you can attempt to change the password to your Apple ID or log in with the device passcode (with a limited number of attempts).
If you are still unable to log onto the device, the last resort would be to contact Apple support via their website or in-store and provide an original purchase receipt for the device. Once it is proven that the device is yours, your Apple ID will be given access to your device.i
Bypassing Activation Lock without Apple ID
If you do not have access to the associated Apple ID account, and can’t prove that the phone is yours, you will be unable to use the device. However, many websites and third-party software claim to temporarily bypass an Apple device’s Activation Lock via Jailbreak, but at a price. Almost all the services that claim to bypass the lock have very specific requirements for the devices to have an older iOS version. They all require your device to be “jailbroken” through various means, as well as pay for their service to use it.
Jailbreaking a device consists of a privilege escalation exploit that allows the user to bypass Apple’s security features. This allows the user to gain more control over their iOS device, as it allows the user to personalize the iPhone to a greater extent, download unapproved apps through third-party app stores, and even manipulate existing carrier restrictions.iv However, jailbreaking can lead to instability, shortened battery life, security vulnerabilities, and the inability to apply future updates to the device.v
The reason why your device needs to be jailbroken is because of the way these tools claim to work. Jailbreaking allows for unsigned code to be run on an exploited device. The services that claim to bypass Activation Lock run an exploit on the jailbroken device, which takes the activation request that would normally go to Apple’s activation servers and redirect it elsewhere. This type of man-in-the-middle attack does not change the fact that the iOS device is still associated to the Apple ID it is locked to.vi These tools merely get around the issue temporarily, as reactivating, wiping, or updating the device with a tethered jailbreak allows Activation Lock to become enabled again.
Activation Lock is a security feature that is prominent on most Apple products that have iCloud and Find My enabled. It is a useful feature that can immensely increase the chances of getting back a lost phone, as the device would remain unusable in the hands of anyone else. Without knowing the Apple ID with which the device is associated or who the original owner is, there is no other reliable and permanent way around Activation Lock. These locked devices are lost to this feature not to be repurposed, which increases e-waste and deprecates the second-hand market.
iActivation Lock for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. Apple Support. (2022, November 16). https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201365
iiAfonin, O. (2018, October 4). Everything You Wanted to Know about Activation Lock and iCloud Lock. ElcomSoft. https://blog.elcomsoft.com/2018/10/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-activation-lock-and-icloud-lock/
iiiGault, M. (2023, January 24). Perfectly Good MacBooks From 2020 Are Being Sold for Scrap Because of Activation Lock. VICE. https://www.vice.com/en/article/xgybq7/apple-macbook-activation-lock-right-to-repair
ivSutter, J.D. (2010, July 27). Why people “jailbreak” their iPhones. CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/mobile/07/27/why.jailbreak.iphone/index.html
vUnauthorized modification of IOS. Apple Support (n.d.) https://support.apple.com/guide/iphone/unauthorized-modification-of-ios-iph9385bb26a/ios
viHeath, A. (2014, May23). How the iPhone Activation Lock hack works. Cult of Mac. https://www.cultofmac.com/280450/heres-easy-hack-past-apples-activation-lock-missing-iphone/