It is safe to assert that the majority of Apple users haven't read the terms of service they agree to when using services such as App Store, Find My, or iCloud. Even without having read those terms, I think most users might not be surprised to hear that Apple can revoke your Apple account permanently.
I do however imagine that most people would be surprised to hear that Apple can do this without telling you why, without providing any evidence, and without giving you any chance to defend yourself. I also imagine that most people would be surprised to learn the consequences to your data and Apple devices if Apple chooses to do this.
This is something I recently encountered myself and it has left a sour taste in my mouth. I still love many of the products that Apple make, but I no longer respect the company and its processes, nor do I trust them to hold my data anymore.
In this ranty tale, I will describe how Apple permanently disabled my Apple account, how Kafkaesque the process is when they do this, and the consequences that entailed. The story is still ongoing, so expect this blog post to be edited as new information becomes available.
Apple vs Me. As prosecutor, judge, and juror, Apple charged, tried, and sentenced me without providing any evidence, notice, nor chance to defend myself.
My Journey Into the Apple Ecosystem
I'm only a recent Apple convert. During my youth, you could often find me bashing Apple due to their locked ecosystem and its inability to be tweaked. I was a teenager when softmodding Nintendo Wii and rooting Android phones was hip and trendy, and I very much enjoyed doing that sort of stuff. Over the years, my interest in such activities has decreased and for the most part, I now just want stuff that works well out of the box.
Early 2023 at work, Linux users were faced with a dilemma: convert to MacOS or Windows now or wait until a company approved Linux distribution was ready. I used NixOS then and I was not very keen on giving that up in favor of Ubuntu or a similar Linux flavor. I could just as well use a NixOS VM on a Mac and get an awesome M2 Macbook Pro with great hardware quality and battery life.
I thus started planning for a migration to Apple and bought my own Macbook Air; I had long been lacking a personal laptop and I was very excited about its features. Things were great for a long time; the Air is an awesome machine and MacOS + NixOS VM is a great daily driver combo.
Over the course of 2023 I slowly added more Apple products into my life. First some airtags. Then a pair of Airpod Pros. And finally an iPhone.
I was finally a true Apple convert. That should have enabled me to reap all those sweet, sweet ecosystem benefits, right? Yep, I got to experience that sweet bliss for about 2 days. Then Apple disabled my account.
A brief timeline
Before I delve into the main story, let's take a step back and analyze my journey. These are the major events I can think of that relate to me and Apple. I'll dive into some more detail for some of these later on.
- In 2017 or so (I think?) I got an iPad for Christmas.
- In May 2023, I bought my private Macbook Air & created my new Apple ID (the one that got locked)
- In July 2023, I got my Macbook Pro from work and signed in to my Apple ID on it.
- In September 2023, I bought a 4 pack of airtags.
- In October, 2023 I switched Apple ID on my old iPad to also use the new ID.
- On December 1, 2023, I bought my Airpods Pro (2nd Gen)
- On December 2, 2023, I traveled to San Francisco for work. On arrival I bought Apple TV+ to stream during the difficult jetlag nights.
- On December 3, 2023, I bought an iPhone 15 at Union Square in SF.
- On December 5, 2023, my Apple ID was deactivated. I called the US Apple technical support and they said it would be fixed within 24 hours (it was).
- On December 7, 2023, my Apple ID was deactivated again.
- On December 10, 2023, I came home from the business trip. I immediately called the Swedish Apple support and they initiated an investigation. They assured me they would reach back the next day for a solution. They did not.
- On December 13, I called Swedish technical support again. This time they told me that my account was beyond saving, that they could not escalate the issue, and that I would need to factory reset all of my devices.
- On December 18, 2023, Swedish technical support agreed to escalate the issue to Apple's security team. Simultaneously I issued requests to untie all of my devices from my disabled Apple ID so that they could be attached to a new ID (after a factory reset).
- On December 22, 2023, Apple approved my request to remove the account lock on my iPhone. The Swedish technical support also reached back and relayed that the Security team had denied the escalation request. In their opinion, the ban was valid. With this sad fate confirmed, I immediately began the factory reset of my iPhone and attachment to a new ID.
- On December 29, 2023, Apple closed my requests to unlock my Macbook Air and Airtags with the motivation "We are unable to process your request at this time". Apple support later informed me that this really means that they've denied the request.
- On January 9, 2024, I was able to unlock my Macbook Air. Neither Apple support nor I could see why, since the request had been denied.
- On January 14, 2024, I resent requests to unlock my airpods and airtags.
- On January 25, 2024, both requests were denied again.
- As of February 16, 2024, my airtags and airpods are still locked to my old account. Apple support seems to have stopped answering my emails. My airpods have stopped beeping though and I think people no longer receive "stalking alerts" from them, so that's nice.
On December 5, all my devices started showing recurring system prompts that there was an issue with my Apple ID. The prompt wanted me to log in again.
Attempting to log in resulted in a message like "Apple ID is not active". Very odd, I thought. Googling the error message, people recommending contacting Apple support since they were the only ones that could reactivate the account. Bear in mind that I had received no notice from Apple that my account had been disabled.
I borrowed a colleague's phone (you could only specify a US number to call them on their American website and I didn't have a US SIM) and contacted support. They seemed to recognize the issue and reactivated the account immediately. They told me that within 24 hours things should be back up and running again. They did not say why my account had been disabled.
The next day, December 6, my account was indeed reactivated. Things were good again. And then on December 7, all my devices started showing the same error. Frustrated I postponed this and lived with the recurring error messages over the coming days and waited to contact support until I had come home from the US.
On December 10, I contacted Apple's Swedish technical support. After an hour and several escalations within their support structure, I was told that they could not reactivate the account again - they can only do that once. They would look into it more and come back to me with a solution the next day - they did not.
On December 13, I called them again. After an hour and several escalations within their support structure to another senior support technician, I was told that the only option I had left was to factory reset all of my devices. I got mad.
On December 18, I called them again. After several escalations, I started talking to another senior support technician who agreed to escalate the issue to Apple's Security team. I was very adamant that this was no fault of mine and that Apple was at fault. They did not seem to believe me, but were at least willing to escalate the issue. Meanwhile we agreed that I should initiate a request for all my Apple devices to decouple them from my Apple ID. This would let me factory reset them and then connect them to a new account.
On December 22, I got a call from the same technician. The escalation request was denied. Apple's Security team had reviewed the incidence and confirmed that this was not an error - my account had apparently been banned for a good reason. I still don't know what that reason is; I'm a regular user and I barely use Apple's services. I find it very hard to believe that I could have breached any of their terms of service. I find it much more likely that some system flagged my account as "suspicious" for some reason due to my business trip & iPhone purchase in the US.
As of January 26, 2024, I've been able to recover my iPhone and Macbook Air. I'm still in the process of recovering my airpods, airtags, work computer, and iPad.
So what are the consequences?
If your Apple ID is disabled, you end up in a beureaucratic loop. You can't log in to your account because it has been disabled. But you can't log out either, because in order to do that you need to confirm the action by logging in. So all of your Apple devices are stuck being logged in to a disabled account.
On a Mac, this is mostly fine. But the recurring system prompts about failures to log in to your Apple account are very annoying.
On an iPhone, this is basically bricking the device since you can't download any apps. I was lucky that I had managed to download my essential banking, communications & transportation apps before my account was disabled.
Here's a list of all the things that broke when this happened to me:
- Can't download apps from App Store (iOS & MacOS)
- Access to iCloud is lost
- Time Machine backups are rendered useless since they include the Apple ID lock
- iPhone backups are rendered useless since they include the Apple ID lock
- Can't use "Find My" & airtags no longer show their location.
- All devices regularly prompt me to log in with my Apple ID - this is not something you can stop
If you'd be willing to use all your devices with the above limitations, then I applaude you.
Since you can't restore an iPhone backup / Time Machine backup without also restoring your broken Apple ID lock, you need to use alternative means whether it's manually copying important files or using some external backup service.
Before making a factory reset, Apple needs to approve an "unlock" request that makes it possible for you to connect your device to a new Apple ID after it has been reset. You need to make a single request per device and provide receipts & an explanation of why you need their help.
For my iPhone I spent around 6 hours getting it back into a usable state.
By the way: if you buy Apple products second hand, be aware that this process isn't well protected from the original owner removing your device lock. The only evidence they require to do so is a photocopy of the original receipt showing the device serial.
Consequences of changing Apple ID:
- Any purchaes you've ever made will be nulled; apps, subscriptions, music, ...
- If your email is tied to iCloud... I hope it's not as bad as I believe it would be.
If this happens to you
If you encounter the "Apple ID is not active" error, then you need to contact Apple support. You can't recover from this error by yourself.
In hindsight, I think the best action to take after they have reactivated it would be to log out / uncouple all of your devices from your Apple ID. My hypothesis here is that if they disable your account again, you won't have to factory reset your devices. Worst case, you will at least avoid the annoying system prompts warning you about an issue with your Apple ID.
Don't trust Apple. Seriously. They provide such excellent products that I don't want to abandon their products (also, sunk cost...), but I will never again make myself more vulnerable to their whims than I have to.
Here are my new policies for interacting safely with Apple, while still benefitting from their ecosystem.
I will still use Time Machine as it provides a reasonably simple backup option as long as my account is active. I will however not trust it to protect important data.
I will never use it again. Not for files, not for notes, not for anything unless used as a means of temporary transfer between devices. I count myself lucky that I already have most of my important features split across multiple services: Fastmail, Bitwarden, Syncthing...
If I had used iCloud for both email and passwords I would have been screwed big time.
Prior to this incident I would have been OK with Apple storing this information. I've now made sure to use Fastmail instead. They've got a very nice iOS integration, so I don't really notice it. In fact, in some ways it's even better.
- Use Bitwarden for passwords
- Use Firefox instead of Safari
- Use Fastmail for email / calendar / contacts
- On Android: export contacts
- On Android: import contacts into Fastmail
- Fastmail setup guide
- Self-host your photos (I use Photoprism)
Apple has not stated why they disabled my account. It came out of nowhere, with neither warning nor notice. And while trying to recover my devices have taken a considerable amount of time, the worst part is that I still don't know why this happened. Truly a Kafkaesque trial: I have been convicted without charge, evidence, or trial. Even if I manage to restore all my devices; I have no guarantee that this won't happen again and I have no idea how likely it is.
Apple does reserve the right to do this in their terms of service, but I really think that they must hold themselves to a higher standard. If they don't, I hope legislation will force them to. This treatment is unacceptable. It would have been fine to lose access to their services if they actually provided evidence of which terms were breached. But when treated like this, I truly feel wronged and regret buying in to their ecosystem.
Here's to a better next year.
Finally I want to thank Ivan. I've truly appreciated your candor and support and I'm very grateful for the devices you helped me recover.