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MacBook Security Chip Gives the Secondhand Computer Market Hell

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

Digital recyclers are having a hard time breaking into secondhand Macbooks that have retailed for as much as $3,000. The problem? The laptops won’t let anyone other than the owner log in even after a wipe, so now these perfectly good computers are being sold for scrap.

Vice says that the problem lies in the Macbook’s T2 security chip (or the M series of chips on newer models, which have the T2’s features built-in), which was unveiled back in 2018. The security features of the chip include encrypting stored data and biometric data from TouchID. The trouble is that refurbishers can’t get into a laptop with a T2 chip even after a factory reset unless the original owner turned off “Find My” or used the Erase Assistant prior to turning the MacBook in, due to the chip’s Activation Lock. Instead, these laptops, which can be worth thousands of dollars, get sold for scrap parts.

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

The T2 chip’s activation lock was designed, in part, to help prevent theft, which is why it’s tied to the “Find My” feature. For instance, if a thief takes your locked MacBook off a coffee shop table while you’re not looking, it will prevent them and their fences from getting into it.

But now the legitimacy secondhand market has been caught in the crossfire, as Mac owners innocently turn in activation locked MacBooks that will become bricks upon leaving 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 login information for each laptop in order to factory reset them for resale, but Bumstead said that previous owners are rarely responsive.

“Previous owners do not return phone calls, and large corporations that dump 3000 machines assume they have been destroyed, so it is critical we have a solution that does not depend on the previous owner approving,” Bumstead told Vice.

The T2 chip is contained inside several Macbook models and some iMacs, according to Apple. In an ideal world, users would factory reset their computers before they are sent to a refurbisher, 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 restrictions of the T2 chip. These have been cleared up.

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