Getting your money’s worth

Or, make sure you back up your 2FA codes…

I’ve been using the same iPhone 7 Plus for over three years now. In fact, I just finished paying my carrier the last installment plan for it a few months ago. Since my wife and I are focused on becoming financially independent, having the $40-50 a month back has given me some satisfaction, and I had no desire to upgrade to a new device. In fact, part of my mindfulness practice has been to spend less time on the phone, so I’ve taken a few steps to make the phone less appealing to use. In addition to keeping it in do not disturb mode most of the time, I’ve also turned the screen to greyscale via the Accessibility Options -> Color Filters. There’s also a Accessibility Shortcut that I can activate with a triple-click of the home button to turn this off, but most of the time when I see my icons in full color the vividness is almost unbearable.

Now I’ve had no shortage of accidents with my phone over the years. I dropped it while canvassing back in 2017, and rather than break the screen, it did something with the LCD substrate that caused black lines to creep in from the edges. They went away after a while before coming back, and I dealt with it for several months before they became so large that I couldn’t read things like the battery meter or other elements that I couldn’t scroll to a better part of the screen. So I reluctantly brought the phone to the local cell phone repair store and had it fixed for a hundred bucks. What took me so long, I said to myself, looking at my fully-readable screen.

The next time I broke it I decided to try my own repair. I ordered a kit for forty bucks off of Amazon, and pleased myself by repairing the phone myself in less than an hour. The repair didn’t last much longer than that, as I again dropped the phone and broke the screen again. The next DIY repair wasn’t so lucky.

The encryption for the Touch ID on iPhones are controlled by a small integrated circuit soldered onto the home button’s ribbon cable. This chip is paired to the iPhone’s motherboard and contains hardware keys that are part of the encoded fingerprint data. In the past, Apple maintained tight control over the repairing of the device with a new TouchID button, and it was not something that could be done outside of an Apple store. In fact, a whole market around repairing TouchID flex cables appears to have sprung up in Asia, as there are several how-to repair guides on these cables that involves sophisticated soldering techniques.

This was obviously beyond my ability and resources. My other option was to have Apple replace my screen for $160 or so. It seems that Apple just swaps the screen with the home button attached, to mitigate the risk of damaging the flex button during removal as I had done. That was still a bit much for me, and I relied on the on-screen Assistive Touch button for several more weeks. The most major downside for losing TouchID was that LastPass forced me to type in my full password, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

And then the final straw. The microphone died. I’m still not sure what happened, but at some point I discovered that I couldn’t complete calls. I couldn’t hear anyone, and they couldn’t hear me. But it was strange. Certain videos on Twitter would play, but not others. I couldn’t record sound in the memo app or in videos. I could complete calls via my car’s bluetooth or my iPad, but not using my bluetooth headset. And at first this was fine; I have a VOIP phone for work that I can use for important calls, and everything else went to voicemail. It was actually kinda relaxing for a while. At some point last week I decided enough was enough. I did an iTunes backup, wiped my phone to factory, and checked again. Still broken. I restored the backup to make sure I still had access to my 2FA accounts, and made plans to go to the Apple store for an assessment.

The short story is that the Apple tech couldn’t run the diagnostics. The Lightning dock diagnostic device that they use returned CATASTROPHIC FAILURE and the tech just shook their head. Since I was adamant about another $500-800 phone purchase, I went to file an insurance claim with my carrier, agreed to a $120 for a replacement device, and had a new phone via FedEx the next day. I ran a backup on my old phone, loaded the new one, swapped the SIM card and laughed to myself. What took me so long, I asked myself again.

I wiped the old phone, threw it in the box, slapped on the return shipping label and stuck it in the mail. Then today I went to open Google Authenticator and stared in shock at a blank screen. What followed was an hour of mild shock as I cataloged and prioritized what I had lost. Work accounts were the least of my worries, of course. I have crypto accounts. Thankfully Coinbase and Gemini were in Authy, which seems to use a cloud based storage protected by a key that gets backed up by iTunes. After some mild panic-Googling, I was able to recover one of my Google Auth account keys for another exchange from a note in my password manager, and started a two-week cool-off period on another. I provided some personal details in a ticket to a portfolio tracking site, and they had the account unlocked in less than 15 minutes.

Everything that I reactivated went into Authy. I’ve still got a few vendors that I’m going to have to contact to regain access, but nothing critical that is causing me any stress. I’ve learned a valuable lesson about 2FA.

And next time my screen breaks or my phone gets damaged, I’m not going to wait months for repairs. I’m just going to file the damn insurance and be done with it.

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