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A Guide to Jailbreaking Smartphones

Growing instances of malware attacks on smartphones has sparked zveloLABS™ to compile the following quick guide to help users understand the ins-and-outs of jailbreaking smartphones, including what it is, insights into the legalities behind the process, how it’s done, and its benefits and risks.

 

What is a Jailbroken Smartphone?
By definition, a jailbroken smartphone is one that allows users to utilize functions beyond those permitted by its manufacturer by default. This differs from the concept of unlocking a phone, which simply entails the process of removing restrictions that bind a phone to a single carrier. Jailbreaking (also associated with “rooting”) a smartphone requires that the on-board firmware be modified to allow users to access capabilities that would otherwise be unavailable. The process of jailbreaking a smartphone also permits the installation of 3rd party applications that have not been approved or are not available via channels established by the phone's manufacturer (iTunes and Android Marketplace). A slight modification of the smartphone's internal workings may either result in more features and better performance or may render the phone unusable – also known as “bricking” the phone.

Is Jailbreaking a Smartphone Legal?
The legalities behind jailbreaking a smartphone was a point of contention between phone manufactures and end-users for many years until July of 2010, when the Library of Congress made jailbreaking, unlocking, and rooting smartphones a fair use in the United States under the Copyright Act. Granted, the flip-side to jailbreaking or modifying a phone is that the act may render any existing warranty null and void.

How to Jailbreak a Smartphone
With the legalities aside, how does one actually jailbreak a phone? In general, the process requires the modification of the existing firmware–changing how it functions internally. A large number of tools and tutorials are available on the Internet on how to jailbreak a large variety of phones from different manufacturers. These online resources have been widely available even before the process was declared legal. Some commonly known jailbreaking tools are Pwnage (iPhone & iPod), GreenPois0n (iPhone & iPod), SuperOneClick (Android), among others.

Benefits and Risks of Jailbreaking a Smartphone
Despite the benefits of jailbreaking smartphones–access to 3rd party apps not regularly available, greater control over themes, sounds, wallpapers, plus other benefits that help unlock a smartphone’s true potential– there are serious risks associated with it. For starters, if a jailbreak is incorrectly performed or uncompleted, the process may damage the phone’s firmware itself, rendering the phone inoperable. Even if jailbreaking is performed successfully, the phone may still encounter performance issues.

Loss of data is another downside. Such a pinch is felt worst by those that heavily use the smartphone’s camera and have accrued large still photo and video galleries. A lifetime of memories could potentially be lost if not backed up elsewhere.

Above all else, the greatest risk of jailbreaking is the possibility of suffering from a security breach or loss of personal privacy. Scammers and hackers behind some of the latest malware threats are targeting smartphones at increasing rates. This trend alone should raise alarms, considering the massive amounts of data these phones can store–text messages, contacts, web-browsing sessions, emails, corporate network connections, day-to-day geographic locations of a user, and much more.

Buying Jailbroken Smartphones from Untrusted Sources
For users who purchased smartphones from untrusted sources (eBay, Craigslist, etc), there are a few ways to determine whether or not it has been jailbroken. For Apple products, the simplest would be to determine the presence of unofficial Application Stores that have been installed. Most jailbroken iPhones contain the Cydia application that allows users to install 3rd party applications not approved by Apple. Another would be to try and synchronize the phone with iTunes – some older versions of iTunes do not work well with jailbroken iPhones.

For Android phones, the process is slightly more complicated. A “Terminal Client” must first be downloaded from the Android Marketplace. There are several free clients available. After the Terminal client is launched and a pound sign (#) is displayed, this indicates that the phone has been “rooted.”

In the event that users do purchase jailbroken devices, some steps can be taken to restore these back to their previous state. For Apple products, iTunes may be used to restore the products back to their factory defaults. iTunes has the ability to download and reinstall the official Apple firmware. This process deletes any data previously stored in the device. For Android devices, rooting applications such as Universal Androot allow users to both root and unroot their devices.

Summary
For most users, jailbreaking is performed in order to maximize the performance of their device(s). Since being declared legal, this activity has presumably increased in popularity amongst smartphone users. Despite its advantages, zveloLABS engineers warn consumers to consider the aforementioned risks of jailbreaking before proceeding, especially if the process is not fully understood.

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Miguel Alberto Gomez is a contributing writer to zveloBLOG and is an instructor and researcher with the College of Computer Studies at the De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines.

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