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My iPhone changed my password and locked me out. What gives?

It wasn’t user error this time. Wait. Was it?

Josh Miller/CNET

I was on my iPhone 6S, in an Uber coming back home from a late-night San Francisco Giants baseball game, when I realized my phone's passcode requirement had changed from four digits to six. No, I didn't change it, it just happened.

My old password wouldn't work of course, so I used the fingerprint scanner to unlock my iPhone and searched for some answers. I found multiple forums and angry tweets -- all iPhone users who had the same problem -- but no solutions. Some dated back 9 years, could they have had the same problem?

In the back of my head I heard the droning voice of an Apple IT rep at the Genius Bar from one of my possible futures saying "Did you try turning it off and on again?" In my haste to see if the bug would magically correct itself, I held down the power button. 

But then I remembered something crucial: iPhones require your password after a restart. So now I couldn't unlock my phone using the fingerprint scanner. I needed a 6-digit passcode I didn't have. Yeah, it was a dumb move.

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iPhones don't let you unlock with the fingerprint sensor after a restart.

Taylor Martin/CNET

This is the story of the mysterious circumstances surrounding my phone, and what you should do if one day you wind up like me: Angry at your own negligence and having to start over from scratch.

Apple's Genius Bar diagnosis: Poltergeist?

I wish I had booked a Genius Bar appointment before attempting to fix my perplexing password issue myself. Better late than never, I thought as I waited to be called.

Alan, one of Apple's highly trained customer service reps, heard my tale of woe, inspected my iPhone and then suggested the following possible explanations: A poltergeist had overtaken my phone; the logic board malfunctioned; or maybe I had changed a manual setting while sleepwalking... or when drunk.

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The Genius Bar that I went to at the Apple store in San Francisco.

Shara Tibken/CNET

Sure, Alan. Very funny. He then suggested we turn to Apple's 'uber geniuses' in the back of the local Apple store for their advice. 

When I asked who these mysterious people were, Alan responded that they were the wise, bearded Apple workers who remained behind closed doors, too antisocial to help customers in the store, but always prepared for tough IT questions. I swear I am not making this up, this is actually what he said.

The uber geniuses' conclusion was grim: My password would have only changed if someone had changed the settings. It had to be my fault.

Their thought, conveyed through the charming and hilarious Alan, was that maybe my phone automatically updated to the latest version of iOS and prompted me for a new password. And maybe I didn't notice that any of this was happening. And maybe when the phone was in my back pocket I butt-typed in a new password without realizing it.

The point is, thanks to Apple's air-tight privacy protection, there was no way for me to figure out the new password on my own. For Apple, this is a feature, not  a glitch: Without a backdoor, the company's response to government warrants is essentially, "Sorry, we can't help you -- we're locked out, too." And specialty products available to law enforcement -- like the GrayKey device -- are finding it harder to bypass lockouts in iOS 11.4.1 and iOS 12, as Apple continues to ramp up security. 

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Phoneless, friendless, the only solution I had was to completely wipe and restore my phone using my most recent backup... which was from six months ago. It was one of those things I knew I should do, but never got around to. Yes, in a perfect world, everything would have been safely automatically backed up to iCloud -- except I stubbornly didn't want to pay Apple $1 a month for the necessary storage to do so. 

As I began to restore my iPhone 6S from a nearly-blank slate, I recalled all the videos and photos that were now erased from existence. A rare parasailing trip on Santa Catalina Island, front row concert videos of Eminem and Dr Dre. All gone. I kicked myself a little harder.

The road to redemption...?

Feeling lost and hopeless, the only way to regain control over my life was to prevent this from happening to me or anyone else ever again. I kept looking for answers as to why it happened in the first place, talking about my problem to anyone and everyone who would listen.

The most plausible option, at least better than a ghost inhabiting my phone, came from a coworker.

His suggestion: Maybe when I set up my work email on my phone, CBS's MDM (Mobile Device Management) server requirement prompted me to change my password because it requires a six-digit code.

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For extra security, iPhone gives the option for a six digit passcode instead of four.

James Martin/CNET

Sure, this seemed reasonable. Two days before the lock-out incident, I remembered starting the process of putting my corporate email on my phone, but I was never actually successful. My inbox is still all-personal, all the time.

Regardless, I wanted to look into the possibility, and went down to our friendly IT team to hear more about it. They explained that while signing in, right after you type in your email and password, the first pop up will immediately prompt you to change your phone passcode from four to six digits. The trust certificate comes after -- meaning the passcode change on my iPhone takes precedence over everything else.

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Apple engineers are said to be working on beefier security measures for the iPhone.

Josh Miller/CNET

If I didn't accept the trust certificate, the server would have told me that my email and password were incorrect (even if they weren't). I remember being told that my login credentials were wrong, but I don't ever remember being prompted for a passcode change.

More like a dead end

If I learned anything from the many people I complained to, it's that Apple's security makes it impossible for anyone other than you, the password creator, to unlock your iPhone. This is obviously a good thing, but it does mean that the likelihood that someone or something other than myself changed my password are minuscule at best.

For Alan, the 'uber geniuses', and an Apple spokesman I reached out to, every explanation revolved around user error -- I did something wrong and my iPhone is blameless. In this case, that failed MDM installation is the likeliest culprit, even though my corporate email never touched my iPhone's inbox. Perhaps I have a "temporary" six-digit passcode floating around, one that the system never recorded.

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The screen for setting and changing your iPhone passcode.

Matt Elliott/CNET

But that doesn't seem right. The possibility that I unknowingly changed my password then -- or while it was in my pocket -- is as far-fetched to me as my iPhone growing two opposable thumbs and changing the passcode itself. And so, at the end of my journey, I've unfortunately come to a dead end.

I give up. I wash my hands of this mind-boggling -- and incredibly annoying -- mystery. Forget your iPhone passcode? You're screwed. Here's the most important thing I learned in this experience: Back up your phone as often as possible and cross your fingers this never happens to you.

If it does, keep calm and do not turn off your phone. 

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