The concept of a ‘walled garden’ is nothing new and has been Apple’s excuse for imposing various limitations on the operating system (OS) ever since the release of the first iPhone in 2007. Jailbreaking frees a device of many of these restrictions, but is it safe to do so?
It seems like a given that you should be able to use any of your devices as you please. After all, you’ve already paid for it. A jailbroken device will often offer increased functionality, but there are numerous risks to be aware of.
What is jailbreaking?
A term often used in relation to the iPhone, jailbreaking allows you to modify or unlock a device for increased functionality. You’ll be able to add new features that were previously inaccessible, using software to do so.
This is typically done by exploiting a flaw that gives the device owner full administrator access to the operating system. (Another method is via installing custom firmware.) In this sense, the ‘jail’ is the limitations placed on the device by the manufacturer. That’s why jailbreaking is associated with Apple devices, given the nature of their restrictive walled garden.
Jailbreaking can also be used to refer to changing the code on many types of devices. For example, A John Deere tractor display was jailbroken and modified to run Doom, while Doom Eternal can be played on a Samsung fridge. Sometimes used interchangeably with jailbreaking, ‘cracking’ typically relates to software, while ‘rooting’ commonly refers to Android devices.
Alternatively, sideloading involves installing an app from an unofficial source. This is done without using the approved app store, which can be a problem with iOS. Some devices will allow for the installation of apps or software with no modifications necessary. Others will need to be jailbroken first.
Jailbreak software is usually obtained from online forums and is free of charge.
Is jailbreaking safe?
There are various risks involved with jailbreaking a device.
Sites may ask the user to pay a fee to download jailbreaking or unlocking software. These are scams. The jailbreaking tools might be fake, or you might be asked to fill out a survey before downloading a file. Be wary of any supposed release which isn’t mentioned anywhere else.
Jailbroken apps can collect user data, and you may be unable to keep updating your device to the latest version of the OS as it will remove the jailbreak software. If you’re not using the latest version of the device’s firmware, this can be a security risk, as Apple regularly releases iOS updates to patch any vulnerabilities.
Malware can be included as part of the software downloaded to jailbreak your device, especially if you’re getting the files from random websites. The same is true for any apps you’ve downloaded from external sources, as well as any other files you download to your device outside of Apple’s ecosystem. One of the advantages of the Walled Garden is that it’s safer when downloading apps.
There could be stability issues, especially if you begin to push a device past its capabilities. If it’s a mobile device, you could drain the battery at a much faster rate than normal, or it could begin to turn off unexpectedly. This is especially true with the initial release of the jailbreak firmware, which may be unstable compared to the manufacturer’s latest update.
Apple has noted that some unauthorized modifications have caused damage to iOS that is not repairable. This may break the device permanently if a new update is installed.
If you decide to jailbreak your iPhone, you’ll be voiding the warranty. It’s something to consider before installing the latest jailbreak for your device.
Is jailbreaking legal?
Jailbreaking your device is legal in the majority of countries around the world, including the United States and the UK (however, we always advise you to check out local laws if you’re unsure).
In Europe, jailbreaking falls under Council Directive 91/250/EEC, which says “a person having a right to use a computer program should not be prevented from performing acts necessary to observe, study or test the functioning of the program, provided that these acts do not infringe the copyright in the program”. Simply: as long as you’re not trying to duplicate a device’s operating system or profit from copyrighted content, it’s completely legal to jailbreak your device.
In the US, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act allows you to jailbreak your devices for personal and non-commercial use. This was brought about after Apple tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge an exemption appeal raised by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 2009.
These days, Apple’s iOS support pages say:
“Apple strongly cautions against installing any software that hacks iOS. It is also important to note that unauthorized modification of iOS is a violation of the iOS end-user software license agreement, and because of this, Apple may deny service for an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch that has installed any unauthorized software.” So, there is a chance that you could void the warranty.
Why jailbreak your iPhone?
Using iOS as an example, jailbreaking will give the user access to more features and improve customization options.
There are various reasons why it makes sense to jailbreak an iPhone. You might want to make changes that are restricted by the operating system, allowing for improved personalization or privacy. You’ll be able to download third-party apps and open-source software, including options that aren’t available via the Apple Store. Users will also be able to remove preinstalled apps from devices, which saves memory and reduces bloatware.
Jailbreaking can be used to bypass serious restrictions beyond changing the color of your home screen theme. For example, the non-profit organization Lumen spoke to two North Korean defectors about the Trace Viewer app, which is preinstalled on every smartphone in the country by the government. Trace Viewer randomly takes photos while the phone is on as a form of government surveillance, and the images can’t be erased unless the device is jailbroken.
“Smartphones would be connected to a laptop computer via a USB cable to transfer an application onto the phone. If the phone was tricked in the correct way, the application could be transferred and launched without being detected and deleted by the phone’s security software. Once launched, the application provided the user with root access, which gives complete control over the entire phone and the ability to add, modify or delete any file.”
In other words, a tethered jailbreak will give a North Korean user root access to their device, so any incriminating Trace Viewer images can be deleted.
Jailbreaking can also be used to improve privacy in a number of ways. You can install software that allows you to enable or disable your microphone, camera, and GPS. An iOS or Android phone can be tracked even if location services are turned off or if the device itself is switched off. While VPNs, proxies, tor, and tunneling are great for IP-based geolocation, jailbreaking can be used to fool even GPS-based geolocation.
Types of jailbreak
Devices can be jailbroken either through a wired connection to another device or wirelessly after downloading the required software from the internet:
- Tethered jailbreak: This will require that the device is plugged into a computer to be loaded with software to bypass restrictions. In this context, the “tether” is the wire that connects your iPhone to your computer. However, if the battery dies or the device reboots, you may have to plug the device into a computer for it to remain jailbroken.
- Untethered jailbreak: If you’re able to download and install the software directly onto the device, it’s an untethered jailbreak.
What can be jailbroken?
Anything from Amazon Fire TV devices to popular games consoles can be jailbroken. For example, you might want to jailbreak a PS4 to emulate older titles or to access a store dedicated to homebrew games. You’ll be able to install Linux, activate cheats, or create custom themes to a much more detailed level.
It’s also an option if you have an older device that is no longer supported by the latest firmware.
Should you jailbreak your device?
Consider why you plan to jailbreak your device in the first place. Is it worth the risks? It doesn’t take long to root most devices, and it gives the user more choices, even if it might be at the expense of the manufacturer’s warranty. You’ve paid for the hardware, and you should be able to alter the software to better suit your needs. On the other hand, you are going to be more open to malware, data breaches, and other potential problems.
If you plan to jailbreak a device, make sure to back up any data, just in case. Make a note of the various risks, and be wary of downloading any suspicious files. Any true jailbreak is likely to be major news, and you’ll be able to find discussions on forums where people discuss the release.
We’d advise against the average user jailbreaking their device, given the numerous issues that could potentially arise.