Risky Business — Jailbreaking Your Devices

Unlocking or “jailbreaking” your mobile phone are actions that manufacturers wish you would never do, but it can allow consumers to move devises between wireless carriers.  For example, when the phone is unlocked it can be moved between carriers, i.e. between GSM carriers such as T-Mobile and AT&T, or between CDMA carriers such as Sprint and Verizon.  At one time, unlocking was treated as strictly taboo, but it is lawful, provided you comply with the terms and conditions you agreed to when you acquired the phone.  When you jailbreak a smartphone, you remove layers of security that prevented the insertion of software that is not sanctioned by the phone manufacturer, so there can be risks too.

On the positive side, a jail broken smartphone lets you “add more options to the control center, tweak or add animations and shortcuts and choose from thousands of exciting apps and tweaks in the “Cydia jailbreak store.”  There are many websites that offer advice on how to jailbreak Apple iPhones and Android phones, and how to try recovering from a botched jailbreak, another potential risk to consumers. The advice they offer is tentative because neither jailbreaking attempts nor recovery attempts are reliable.  There are varied operating system versions in use and with each update of a phone’s operating system, the manufacturer includes new hurdles to prevent successful jailbreaks.

The jailbreak process is complex and often involves connecting the phone to a laptop carrying iTunes software and manipulating several of the phone’s control buttons at the same time, all without helpful progress notices from the phone screen.

While risky, the payoff that draws tech-savvy people to this challenge is the distinctive apps that can be put on the smartphone.  Manufacturers do not exploit all the capabilities of the small computers that make smartphones work.  But their timidity has reasons.  Some apps drain the battery too quickly and some provoke copyright issues.  Some developers take advantage of the unharnessed capabilities and offer new apps for sale on sites such as Cydia.  Some of the apps may be useful, but some such as faking your location while playing Pokemon, seem ludicrous.

This may be fun or exhilarating to some, but few of us have enough motivation to willingly void the warranty on an expensive phone, merely so we can experiment with unauthorized software.

By jailbreaking the phone, we take upon ourselves the burden of combating uninvited malware that steals your personal information, damages your device, attacks your network, or introduces spyware, and viruses.

The jailbreak changes to software can make the device unstable and subject to crashes, freezes of apps and loss of data.  Those instabilities can result in shorter battery life, dropped calls and unreliable data connections.  Other disruptions associated with jailbreak include disruptions of cloud, messaging and email services.  Once the phone is jailbroken, it is no longer eligible for manufacturer supported software updates, Don’t bother taking your jailbroken phone into a carrier’s sales and service office asking for repair help.

Many devices could be jailbroken, unleashing more of the capabilities from the computers at their core.  While it is legal to jailbreak smartphones and Apple TV, it is illegal to jailbreak tablet computers (including the iPad).  This idiosyncratic prohibition comes from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which gives the Librarian of Congress the right to decide which types of devices users can be legally modified without their manufacturers’ permission.  In the fall, the Librarian decided that making significant changes to the operating system of a tablet is not to be permitted.

It seems that device owners should be allowed to experiment with them as aggressively as they like, until their frolic harms someone else.  Of course, they should be accorded no sympathy when they damage their own device.

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