MacBook security chip is wreaking havoc on the used computer market

MacBook security chip is wreaking havoc on the used computer market

Macbook Pros and Airs from 2018 to 2020, as well as 2020 iMacs, contain the T2 chip.

Macbook Pros and Airs from 2018 to 2020, as well as 2020 iMacs, contain the T2 chip.
Image: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

Digital recyclers have a hard time breaking into second-hand Macbooks that have sold for as much as $3,000. The problem? The laptops won’t let anyone but the owner log in even after wiping, so now these perfectly good computers are being sold for scrap.

Shame says the problem lies with the Macbook’s T2 security chip (or the M-series chips on newer models, which have the T2’s features built in), which was unveiled in 2018. The chip’s security features include encrypting stored data and TouchID biometric data. The problem is that even after a factory reset, fixer-uppers can’t get into a laptop with a T2 chip unless the original owner “Find My” or used the Erase Assistant before I handed in the MacBook, because of the chip Activation lock. Instead, these laptops, which can be worth thousands of dollars, are sold for scrap parts.

“As I predicted years ago, Activation Locked T2 MacBooks are flowing to recyclers (15 of these are 2020 M1!) Recyclers willing to breach the R2 certificate sell to uncertified barbarians like me who use them for parts, but the most just scrap because of liability paranoia,” tweeted John Bumsteada makeover.

The T2 chip’s activation lock is designed in part to help prevent theft and is therefore linked to the “Find My” function. For example, if a thief takes your lock MacBook off a coffee table while you’re not looking, it will prevent them and their gates cannot enter.

But now the legit second-hand market has been caught in the crossfire as Mac owners innocently turn in activation lock MacBooks that turn into bricks when they leave their hands. Vice reports that the original owners of these computers are usually schools or companies that have a bulk contract with Apple for technology. Refurbishers would have to obtain the credentials for each laptop to return it to factory settings for resale, but Bumstead said previous owners rarely respond.

“Previous owners don’t call back, and large companies who dump 3,000 machines assume they’ve been destroyed, so it’s critical that we have a solution that doesn’t rely on the previous owner’s approval,” Bumstead told Vice.

The T2 chip is in several MacBook models and some iMacs, according to Apple. In an ideal world, users would reset their computers to factory settings before sending them for a facelift, but instead Bumstead and his colleagues are forced to accept reduced profits.

Update 1/25/2023 at 2:53 ET: This article originally contained some inaccuracies regarding the purpose and limitations of the T2 chip. These have been cleaned up.

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