Flashlight-Gate? Serious security bug with our new MacBook Air (2020)
Hi! *TL;DR at the bottom*. Here’s the long(-er) story:
We’re a small team of colleagues, all joining forces at my company as freelancers. I’m no computer genius by a long shot, but the most tech-savvy within the team: So I take it upon myself to set up and handle all computers, phones and tablets. I’ve been a long time Apple user myself, so naturally, we’re stacked with iMacs, MacBooks, iPhones and iPads. I do love Apple and their amazing products, but every once in a while, …
When the new MacBook Air (2020) was announced, it seemed like a good new machine for my colleague, who was on a MacBook (12″) before – one that suffered from some serious problems that weren’t adequately taken care of at our local Apple store when turned in for repairs. She needed her laptop for work on a daily basis, didn’t feel like giving it away for another week … and the new Air just seemed so good! So the order was placed when the machine was announced.
She was quite happy with it in the beginning, but was reporting a “black screen” sometimes. I didn’t worry about it too much, since I set it during a migration process from a TM backup – and sometimes, something may act up on a new machine. Covid hit us all hard, and I was quite busy taking care of business. So it took a while until I got around to checking out what the problem was.
Apparently, whenever the lid is closed for a longer time than a few minutes, the screen stays black when opening up the MBA again. You need to close it and re-open it, *then* the login screen appears. Sometimes, you need to do this multiple times and it takes a few minutes before one can use the machine again.
I did some testing and as it turned out, the problem persisted even when using a fresh OS/X install without any additional kernel extensions or machinery hooked up. So it’s a fair guess we’re not dealing with any software problems, but some hardware / mechanical corruption.
At one point, when opening the MacBook Air and encountering the dreaded black screen again, I did hear some YouTube video playing, though! Another guess: The system *is* operational, indeed – it’s just the screen that stays black.
For reasons unknown to me to this very day, I picked up a very strong flashlight and used it on the Black Screen. By now, you’ve probably guessed it – and you guessed it right: I could see all windows, could read the mails, and had full access to the system by keyboard and trackpad. Only after closing and re-opening the Air again, the login window would appear and prompt the password.
I was quite stunned and did some deeper digging: During the time the lid was closed, there were no entries in the system.log – so apparently, OS/X *did* go to sleep, but after waking up again wouldn’t turn on the backlight of the screen ***AND*** neglect the password prompt.
This is a serious security breach for anyone handling sensitive data. Think about leaving your MacBook on your desk, at a training or at a conference, trusting whenever you close the lid it’s fully protected and can only be entered with the right password (or thumb print). Theoretically, anyone afflicted would have to report this in most countries according to the new European Privacy Laws. Chances are slim anyone would try to gain access to the system AND think of using a flashlight when encountering a black screen after opening the lid … still it’s a reportable security breach.
I did speak to Apple support team multiple times and they said an “Express Exchange” (we get a new machine, then send in the old one for repair) is absolutely possible since we have AppleCare for all of our devices – as long as I jump through some totally unnecessary hoops, such as running an intensive diagnosis tool and deinstall some additional software / kernel extensions (even though I’ve made it totally clear I *did* test the system with a fresh OS/X installation and the problem still appeared, so it’s impossible for the extensions to cause the problem).
After having done all that, the gentleman at the support team tried to initiate the Express Exchange – and seemingly discovered this is not possible at all, after all. I would have been totally fine if this had been said in the first conversation – it would have saved me a few hours of my time for the hoop-jumping. He did say he will check, though – and that was more than two weeks ago and the last I’ve heard. I spoke to a colleague of mine about this who’s also an Apple junkie, an he lovingly dubbed it the “Flashlight Gate” – knowing how long it takes Apple sometimes to admit a serious problem.
From Apples point of view: I would be ***immensely*** motivated *not* to repair the machine, but much rather get my fingers on it so my technicians can do a full-on analysis of what’s going on exactly. This may be a one off phenomenon, just happening with our machine – and all would be good. But there’s a chance this is something happening with more machines of the new MBA line up. In that case, Apple would probably just collect reports of a “black screen”, either exchanging mechanical parts, screen and / or logicboard, or supply the client with a new machine altogether. But there would be multiple (if not many) machines out there with a severe security issue. I’m really stunned the Apple support team doesn’t really care that much about handling such a serious problem professionally …
If you’ve encountered the black screen yourself, you can go ahead and check with a strong flashlight if you experience the same security issue. Or go ahead and stun your colleague with a MBA (who’s been complaining about a black screen) by telling them the contents of their most intimate and confidential mail conversations after they return from lunch (whilst they wonder why you have a flashlight in your hand). No, seriously: Please, don’t. Especially with the privacy laws, this is a super serious concern and I almost hope we have the one and only affected machine … but only time will tell.
I’ll keep you updated on what happens. Sent another mail to Apple support today.
**TL;DR**: MacBook Airs (2020) screen stays black after having had the lid closed for a few hours. Closing and reopening multiple times will show the login screen and password prompt again. If you shine a strong flashlight on the black screen though after opening it for the first time, the system is fully operational and not password protected.