Mobile

Is jailbreaking legal and safe?

It might sound like the kind of great escape found in movies, but “jailbreaking” is also a tech term that has a different meaning when applied to your smartphone. In this case, the jailbreak is from software restrictions.

Jailbreaking isn’t the same as “unlocking” a smartphone, which allows you to switch over to a new carrier while keeping your old phone.

Here’s what you need to know about jailbreaking.

What is jailbreaking?

Jailbreaking is the process by which Apple users can remove software restrictions imposed on iOS and Apple products like the iPad®, iPhone, iPod®, and more. Jailbreaking allows root access to iOS. It lets users install applications, extensions, and other software applications that are not authorized by Apple’s App Store.

Jailbreaking has a mixed legal history that began with hacker groups. There are several types of jailbreaking software, and jailbreaking is generally used for device customization, iPhone feature extension, and piracy.

Is jailbreaking legal?

The short answer is yes, although it hasn’t always been legal.

Jailbreaking falls under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which addresses digital copyright issues. Section 1201 of the law makes it illegal to circumvent digital locks that protect access to copyrighted works, which can include software.

Congress reviews the law every three years and has gradually expanded the list of items that are exempt. Jailbreaking phones — or “rooting” when referring to Android devices — became legal in 2010, followed by smartwatches and tablets in 2015. In 2018, Congress added more devices to the list.

Worth noting: it’s legal to jailbreak or root a phone if you’re doing it to use legally acquired apps, for a smartphone. The same is not true for illegally acquired apps.

Is jailbreaking safe?

Although legal, it’s not necessarily a good idea to jailbreak your smartphone.

“It’s become a popular way for attackers to break security and get on mobile devices,” says Kevin Haley, director of product management for Security Response at Symantec. “People who jailbreak their own phones save cybercriminals a lot of time and effort, putting their device at risk.”

Apple, maker of the iPhone, tends to agree. The tech giant says it considers jailbreaking the iOS, its operating system, not only a violation of their terms and conditions of use, but also a practice that exposes a phone to a host of risks. Those include security vulnerabilities, stability issues, potential crashes and freezes, and a shortened battery life. If something goes wrong with your jailbroken iPhone, Apple says, it’s up to you to fix it.

Keep in mind, this article is not comprehensive and shouldn’t be relied upon as legal advice to consumers. The information focuses on U.S. laws at the time of publication, and what’s legal now is subject to change in the future.

Jailbreaking purposes

Jailbreaking has many purposes, some legitimate and some not. Here are the most common reasons people jailbreak their phones.

Device customization

The desire to customize the operating system is one of the top reasons people jailbreak their phones. The ability to download apps that are otherwise banned from or unauthorized by the Apple App Store, bypass file restrictions, and customize the overall appearance is alluring to some tech-savvy individuals.

Feature expansion

This goes hand-in-hand with device customization. Apple’s process for verifying apps is lengthy and requires them to comply with a strict license agreement. On a jailbroken phone, users can purchase open-source packages and special modifications that allow them to expand the normal set of apps available on an iPhone.

Malware installation

Smartphone makers are pretty persnickety about security measures. That’s because removing those security features (via jailbreaking) leaves the operating system vulnerable. For example, third-party apps purchased through unauthorized app stores could introduce malware to your device. That’s what happened to more than 250,000 jailbroken iPhones in 2015. In this case, cybercriminals were able to steal passwords, make unauthorized Apple App Store purchases, and even remotely lock devices and hold them for ransom.

Piracy and hacking

These are two ways some people use a legal technique — jailbreaking phones — to break the law. Piracy (a type of copyright infringement) and some forms of hacking (the unauthorized access to data) are illegal in the U.S. Some of the apps you can access on jailbroken phones carry pirated software, films, or music, and you may not realize what you’re using is pirated material.

Cybercriminals can also take advantage of security vulnerabilities in jailbroken phones to hack into accounts and steal information, as in the case of the 2015 iPhone malware incident.

Unlocking carrier active iPhones

If you’re ready to switch cellular carriers for a better phone plan, but you want to keep your device, the carrier will unlock it — usually only requiring that the phone is paid off. However, because the process can be tedious, some people choose to bypass the carrier altogether. Using a jailbroken phone allows you to go from one carrier to the next by changing the SIM card.

Jailbreaking glossary

Baseband

Enables smartphones to connect to a cellular network, which lets you send and receive data and phone calls. The baseband also keeps the device locked to the intended phone carrier, so you would need to hack into the baseband to unlock or jailbreak the phone and use the cellular modem.

Cydia

An alternative to Apple’s App Store, Cydia, can be installed on a jailbroken phone to buy applications not available in Apple’s store.

Jailbreaking/rooting

Jailbreaking is the process by which Apple users can remove software restrictions imposed on iOS and Apple products. Jailbreaking allows root access to iOS and lets users install applications, extensions, and other software applications that are not authorized by Apple’s App Store. Rooting refers to the same process on Android smartphones.

Privilege escalation

This means taking advantage of a design flaw in an operating system or program to gain unauthorized access. Jailbreaking is, essentially, privilege escalation.

Redsn0w

Just one of several free applications that allows you to jailbreak devices, Redsn0w allows you to jailbreak both Mac and Windows devices.

Tethered jailbreak

If a jailbroken phone crashes or loses battery power, it can’t turn back on by itself. You’ll need to attach — tether — the device to a computer and use a jailbreak app, such as Redsn0w, to turn the phone back on.

Unlocking

Unlocking a smartphone allows you to switch over to a new carrier while keeping your old phone.

Untethered jailbreak

You may find jailbreaks that are “untethered,” which means you won’t need to hook up your phone to a computer every time your jailbroken phone crashes or loses battery power.

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