Posted in Blog

The Kill Switch Mystery

I recently finished my Telstra contract and decided to upgrade to an iPhone 11, not because there was anything wrong with my old phone, but to take advantage of Telstra’s offer of $20 a month off my bill for the next 24 months. I backed up the old phone to iCloud and then the nice Telstra lady began the download to the new phone. It was going very slowly. but she assured me everything would be hunky dory in a few hours, so I took it home. It wasn’t hunky dory at all—the phone wouldn’t connect to the WiFi.

Most of the apps were greyed out and the WiFi emoji was missing from the top tight of the screen. It was replaced by 4G because WiFi was disconnected and slow because the phone was trying to install the apps using Mobile Data—which is also potentially expensive.

If you touch a grey-ed out app, the phone makes it top priority and tries to begin the download. But in my case, the download would freeze after a few seconds.

I went through all the solutions I could find in the Apple Support pages and searched those helpful folks on YouTube. In order of priority, they suggested: Turn WiFi Off and On; Turn the iPhone off and on; Put the phone in Aeroplane Mode and then back; Reset Network settings, etc. To no avail… though I did notice that after a Reset the WiFi symbol would appear briefly then fade away.

The folks at Telstra, who have had years of training in reading and understanding arcane phone contracts, were stumped when it came to actually understanding how a smartphone works. Time to stop playing about, I decided.Time to consult the Genii at the Apple Genius Bar.

My Genius went through all the obvious solutions again; she also ran it through a hardware diagnostics program; she re-set the system… to no avail.

Finally, there was nothing for it but to call an extraordinary meeting of Le grand conclave des génies de la pomme. They appeared from back rooms, attired in green shirts, name tags and ceremonial masks (contre le Covid-19) and silently formed a circle around my iPhone, which was lying like a pathetic sacrifice in the centre of a newly sanitised oak veneer altar in the great temple of the Canberra Apple Store. They consulted in whispers and eventually agreed that the last and most drastic option was to wipe the phone’s software completely and re-install the back-up from scratch. Then a lone voice was heard, from the back row of the assembled Genii: “Does he by any chance have a VPN installed?”

He did, indeed. He had installed Surfshark VPN

I had installed Surfshark on the old phone to protect my data when I was relying on public WiFi in malls and libraries. And I had conscientiously turned it off before backing up, so logically, it should not have any influence on the re-install.

When the iPhone installs from an iCloud backup, it first downloads the Operating System, then the Settings and finally the Apps. They appear at first greyed out, then one-by-one, a clock-face wipe turns each one on. The order of turning on is probably not random, just opaque, but you can influence it by tapping an app to make it download first or next. However, in my case, tapping had not effect: the app stayed grey.

So where does a VPN come in?

The Culprit

Most modern VPNs include a function called Kill Switch. The purpose is to speedily and automatically cut the WiFi connection if the site tries to download rogue apps or viruses to your phone. Even though Surfshark had not been fully downloaded, the Kill Switch, is part of the Settings and it was On (see screen). So, as soon as the Kill Switch detected the phone trying to load an App, it cut the WiFi connection.

Resetting the Network briefly opened the WiFi connection, only to have the Kill Switch detect a problem and cut the connection again. Left alone, this would have gone on forever.

The Solution

Simple, though perhaps not instinctive: tap the (greyed out) Surfshark icon to make it download first. The Kill Switch recognises it as a “friend” and lets it install. Once installed, Surfshark recognises the WiFi network and allows all the other apps to download.

Better still, turn OFF the Kill Switch before backing up to iCloud.

The symptoms are baffling, but, like acupressure, the solution only requires a single finger tap. I record this in the expectation that in the future, some poor baffled iPhone owner might experience the same problem and Google will take his/her hand and guide her/him to this blog.

Learn more about how the VPN Kill Switch works.