- Samsung's repair mode will lock your Galaxy S21 phone while it's being repaired.
- Never give your unlocked phone to a stranger, even if they ask.
- All phones and computers should have a repair lock mode.
Samsung's new repair mode is such a great idea that it should be a standard feature on all gadgets.
It’s a special semi-lockdown that lets repair technicians check your phone without accessing your private data. You engage it before handing your phone off for repair and unlock it again when you get the phone back. In the meantime, access to personal data like photos, messages, and passwords is blocked.
“Our phones have a lot of private data that include saved passwords, social media accounts, and more,” Anirban Saha, technology writer and founder of Techbullish, told Lifewire via email. “Once your phone gets damaged, we can’t sign out. Once the smartphone is repaired, the notification can pop off on the lock screen, revealing our data. So, it’s essential to have a lockdown mode like Samsung’s.”
When you take a phone in for repair, it's possible that the technician needs access to the software side. They may need to check the calibration of a screen or battery or just run diagnostics to determine what the problem is before they can fix anything.
The trouble with this is that your phone's locked state is binary. It's either locked or it isn't. Some features require a passcode to access even when the phone is already unlocked, but most of it—including your messages, email, your photos, and more—is available to anyone holding the unlocked phone.
“It all depends on the issue being repaired. If the repair is needed on the physical device, then access to personal data should not be needed, but if it is something with the software, it may be necessary to access certain updates and blockers. The team of repair technicians should alert you if they have to access any personal information,” Tim McGuire, CEO at Mobile Klinik, told Lifewire via email.
But repair engineers are human, and if they could all be trusted, we wouldn’t hear stories about Apple-contracted repairpersons uploading a customer’s nude selfies to Facebook.
That's where Samsung's repair mode comes in.
When you take your phone in for repair—any repair—best practice is to wipe the device entirely and reset it to factory settings. You should also have a current, tested backup, of course, so you can restore it when you get your phone or computer back. Your data is never in danger of theft because it never gets into the hands of anyone who might steal it.
But this is a hassle, and who wants to go through hours of technical work like that just for a quick battery replacement? Nobody, that's who. So, we just hand our phones over, give the repairperson our unlock passphrase if asked, and hope for the best.
Which is a terrible way to do it.
Samsung’s repair mode will first be available on its Galaxy S21 series handsets via a software update. The only problem is that Samsung doesn’t have a great history in terms of privacy or security. As you are handing off your phone to somebody, you really need to be able to trust it to be secure and not just a thin veneer that is easily broken.
A much better implementation would be done at the operational level. Google and Apple could presumably build this into Android, Chrome, iOS, and macOS. That way, it would be as secure as a fully-locked phone but with access to essential diagnostic tools.
The team of repair technicians should alert you if they have to access any personal information.
A repair mode should also be accessible remotely. For example, say your screen gets smashed, and you can't use the phone at all. How do you switch it onto repair mode to secure it? Apple might build a switch into the Find My app alongside the existing lock and remote-wipe features.
In the end, you have to trust your phone vendor because they already have access to everything you do on the phone. So if you trust Samsung, this new feature looks great. If you're more skeptical, you might wait to see if Apple or Google copy this idea. And in the meantime, get used to the hassle of wiping your phone every time it needs a new screen or battery.