Busting your Electronic Device Out of Jail

Waldy Torres's jailbreaking lab.

Sitting in his damp, cool basement with cell phone chargers of all kinds hanging out of every electrical socket available and a customer’s iPhone in his right hand, Waldy Torres explained that there is nothing immoral about jailbreaking your electronic device. A computer programming major at the Springfield Technical Community College, Torres added, while pressing the power and home button at the same time on the iPhone (jailbreaking it), that the device itself is yours.

“I paid for the phone so it’s my shit. I can do whatever I want with it,” Torres said as he clutched his almost-two-inch-long chin hair. He took off his dark blue Yankees hat, leaned back in his office chair and said, “The contract I signed with AT&T didn’t state that the phone was rented. It’s my property. I mean, if you buy a Honda, you’re allowed to modify it as you see fit and Honda can’t say a damn thing to you.”

Jailbreaking is a term that refers to hacking an electronic device in order for it to run programming that isn’t authorized by the service provider. This type of hacking has become widely popular among cellular phones as their technology has reached incredible levels.

So that becomes the big question: is jailbreaking your phone worth it?

Some of the software available to jailbreak iPhones.

Jailbreaking isn’t exclusive to smartphones, however. Gaming devices such as the Sony PlayStation, the Microsoft Xbox and the Nintendo Wii are also subject to being hacked. Additionally, with their popularity steadily rising, tablets have also fallen victims to jailbreaking.

Back in the damp basement, Torres explained the benefits of jailbreaking an iPhone. The main reason, he said, is that jailbreaking gives people the ability to unlock their iPhone and use it with any carrier that uses a SIM card. “Up until recently,” he said, “AT&T had exclusive rights to the iPhone. Unlocking it makes the phone accessible to people on other networks, like T-Mobile.”

Other advantages include access to a huge database of apps that weren’t approved by Apple and AT&T. Apple’s app store provides tons of cool and useful apps for free, but there are also many apps that are rejected on a daily basis. These forbidden apps are then submitted to Cydia, the hub of illegitimate apps, and are eventually made available to iPhone users. In essence, a jailbroken phone has Cydia apps available along with the Apple approved apps.

An iPhone in the process of being jailbroken.

“Another pro, at least for iPhone 4 users, is the added ability to use video chat over AT&T’s 3G network,” said Torres as he demonstrated how the Cydia app works on the iPhone he had just finished jailbreaking. The iPhone 4, which comes with a front facing camera, allows the customer to connect via video chat with other phones that have front facing cameras. The downside to the service is that AT&T allows customers to connect via video chat only when their phone is using Wi-Fi. Jailbreaking the iPhone 4 allows users to utilize their video chat service even when they’re not near a Wi-Fi hotspot.

With all that said, there is a downside to having a jailbroken iPhone. The main disadvantage, according to Torres, is the fact that jailbreaking your device voids your warranty. Apple will not cover any damages to a jailbroken iPhone. “Really doesn’t matter though. The warranty is for a limited time – eventually it’s going to expire anyways and you’ll be stuck with a phone that has no warranty. So why not jailbreak?” Torres said.

Another drawback is the fact that the programming that is being installed into a jailbroken iPhone is often full of bugs and cause the phone to react noticeably slower to prompts and commands. Although the phone is still completely functional, its slowness can be extremely annoying. According to Torres, however, the bugs are usually fixed within a couple of days and a newer version of the jailbreak tools is released that fixes the bugs.

Roberto, who has worked at an AT&T store for 2 years, had a similar concept of phone ownership. He refused to disclose the location of the store he worked in as well as his last name, citing the fact that his phones are still under warranty. Roberto, however, owned two iPhones and both were jailbroken.

“The phone alone is an incredible piece of technology,” Roberto said. “But jailbreaking it makes it 10 times better.”

Roberto said that he preferred to jailbreak his iPhone because it gave him the freedom to customize the phone as he saw fit. His favorite reason to jailbreak his iPhones were the fact that he can download and install different themes and backgrounds, thus customizing the phone to fit his personality.

“It’s not really uncommon. Most of my co-workers have jailbroken their phone,” Roberto said. In an article written in 2010 by Dean Wilson for TechEYE.net, one programmer put the number of jailbroken iPhones across the world at over 4 million.

There is a dark side to jailbreaking your iPhone though. Not only does the customer have access to apps that were rejected by Apple’s app store, but they can also download apps for free, even the ones that usually cost money. This, of course, is stealing and considered illegal.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, implemented in 1998, makes it illegal to produce technology, devices or services used for the purpose of circumventing the access control of copyrighted works, whether or not infringement was involved.

However, in 2009 the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed an exception request with the U.S. Copyright Office related to jailbreaking the iPhone. Apple, of course, disagreed with the EFF and argued that jailbreaking was illegal because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Then in 2010, against Apple’s wishes, the U.S. Copyright Office ruled that jailbreaking was indeed an exception, thus making jailbreaking legal. Apple, however, still cautions against jailbreaking and will void a customer’s warranty in a heartbeat if they discover a jailbroken iPhone.

An iPhone being jailbroken

More recently, the Sony PlayStation 3 was hacked and the system’s root keys were released to the public. During a yearly meeting of hackers in December known as the Chaos Communications Conference in Germany, a group of hackers nicknamed ‘Fail0verflow’ explained how they managed to exploit a weakness in the PlayStation’s encryption system, and as a result they gained access to the encryption keys. With these keys they can run any software on the system that they pleased. Here is a video, broken into two parts, of the conference in Berlin: Part 1 and Part 2. Another hacker, George Hotz, better known for being the first one to jailbreak the iPhone, then made the encryption keys public which also opened the door to piracy.

Jailbreaking video game consoles is also pretty common, according to Torres who, for a fee, will jailbreak your Xbox. “After I jailbreak this phone, the owner is bringing me his Xbox so I can hack it,” he said. Hacking the Xbox allows the owner to play games that have been copied onto a blank DVD disc. The files for the games can be easily found by simply doing a Google search. With a pack of blank DVD discs and a computer, any person can download and burn free games, regardless of the person’s computer skills.

“The problem with jailbreaking a gaming system is that it’s not legal like jailbreaking the iPhone is,” Torres explained. In fact, jailbreaking a gaming system remains in a legal gray area making it neither legal nor illegal – piracy, of course, remains illegal and these companies will sue anyone who violates these laws.

Despite all of the legal battles between hackers and companies that produce electronics, no one can deny the fact that hackers are a crucial part of our innovation economy. They are the ones who push for newer and better electronics by introducing improved software to those with hacked electronics. The good ideas are eventually applied to the official software via updates. At the end of the day, the hackers and the companies need each other to survive.

The hackers will continue to make jailbreaking tools available to the owners of such devices who wish to disregard the warnings against jailbreaking, guaranteed Torres.

  1. Great article. I gave me a new perspective to hackers. In many cases, as you pointed out, the relationship between companies and hackers would be more effective, if the hackers were allowed to joint the debate and show the companies what they are missing in their final products, instead of working to make changes in hiding. Also, thanks for the great info on unlocking the phones, I have often wondered what the pros and cons were, and it appears that the positives far outweigh the negative of “no warranty”.

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