July 22, 2018

Can you buy a fake iPhone in Lusaka?

According to rumour, yes! At least that is something we have heard from customers from time to time, either framed as a question to us or as a possible explanation for how their iPhone is misbehaving in one way or another.

The thinking here, we suppose, is that with a lot of other cheap, (mostly) Chinese counterfeit goods flooding the market, why not iPhones as well? And with the fakers getting increasingly good at their game, would you even notice? Maybe you are walking around with a phone that is pretending to be an iPhone, but which in reality is not only fake, but loaded with spyware, malware, backdoors and trojans?

So are there non-genuine “iPhones” for sale in otherwise reputable shops in Lusaka?

In a nutshell, no. While we haven’t walked into the handful of such reputable gadget stores we know of in Lusaka and done a thorough hands-on test of the iPhones there, we are still certain there aren’t. How can we be sure? Read on…

Is it possible to create a phone that at first glance looks like a real iPhone?

Yes, of course. Any physical product can be faked. That is not where the “problem” is.

Is it possible to create a phone that works the same as an iPhone to the extent that you wouldn’t discover it through usage?

No, and the reason for that lies in the tight control Apple has over the iPhone experience. If you ever bought a new iPhone, remember that Activation was the first step in its setup? The activation involves connecting it to Apple’s security servers to “bless” its use, and that mechanism ensures it is genuine, not stolen and authorised to be used on the network you attempt to use. It is a hard mechanism to fool.

It is of course possible to fake it, to create a process that imitates the steps when you first start the phone but which doesn’t actually do anything. To do that you will have to run something else than genuine iOS (the iPhone/iPad operating system) on the phone though.

That is because there is no way whatsoever to run iOS on anything but a genuine iPhone, and anything that happens outside of any third party app, such as when an iPhone starts up, is in Apple’s control. Apple has iOS locked down with security systems that are incredibly hard to get around to ensure just that. And each time the phone contacts Apple’s servers for things like updates, applications, iCloud requests etc, the authenticity of the hardware (i.e. the actual phone) it is running on is verified before anything is allowed. This is done through security measures so hard to break that even the FBI is not able to. This we know from recent news stories and testimony from FBI (they are not amused). There is zero chance some Chinese phone counterfeiting operation can do so.

Given that, to send a fake iPhone out on the market (and skipping over the issue of managing to contaminate Apple’s legendary strict and centrally controlled supply chain), it will have to run another operating system (OS), and that OS will have to mimic iOS as best it can, but it can not actually use any of the Apple services as outlined above. Therefore it will be evident quite soon that it is not a genuine iPhone. Unless you only use your phone for calling and SMS, that is.

So there are no fake iPhones in circulation?

There are, in fact. What this article states is that it is not possible to fake an iPhone to the extent that it would actually be hard to realise you are using a fake iPhone. But some Chinese outlets have still made such “iPhones”. These are usually sold in the regional markets and to people who are more interested in appearing to have an iPhone, than in actual quality and functionality.

We recently came upon this story, for instance. That phone, pretending to be an iPhone X, as of this writing Apple’s latest and greatest iPhone, was bought in China for $100, obviously much less than a new or used iPhone X would go for. The writer proceeds to test it in various ways. Suffice to say it confirms what is outlined above.

The fake iPhone is also opened up, and this is where the deception really falls apart. iFixit, the famous gadget disassembler outlet, called iPhone X “the pinnacle of electronic engineering.” when they opened it. The fake iPhone is nothing like that, and anybody even remotely familiar with iPhone interiors would immediately see that they were holding a fake iPhone in their hands.

With the hundreds and hundreds of iPhones we have serviced over the last couple of years in Zambia, we have yet to see even one fake iPhone. That in itself is a pretty strong indication that no fake iPhones are sold or in circulation here.

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