Singing the Jailbreaking Blues

Why do hackers do what they do? Because they can. Da-dum, da-dum…
I’m singing the Jailbreaking Blues. Da-dum, da-dum….

Jailbreaking refers to a particular type of hacking, in which a user tries to get around the restrictions that are built into an electronic device. With Apple products, users are limited to buying content and apps from the App Store and iTunes, and some people feel constrained. So they fiddle with the device’s operating system and break through its restrictions.

The same motivation that causes sane men and women to tackle Mount Everest spurs people to hack computers and to jailbreak devices. It’s there and it’s hard; therefore I must conquer it. When Apple released the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4S, it came with a big hacker-proof promise. For some, that boast issued an Everest-like challenge, an invitation: Try to conquer me!

I don’t know about you, but I’m happy to look at pictures of Everest. I don’t have an overwhelming desire to climb it just so I can stab it with a flagpole. In the same way, I’m quite happy to leave my iPad and iPhone alone. They serve me well. So I’m limited to buying apps from the App Store! At least I can rest assured (if there is such a thing in this wired world) that Apple’s strict regulations are keeping me and my personal information safe.

With young people, jailbreaking, like mountain climbing, is all about earning prestige. Bragging rights and a glowing badge of geekiness come with a successful jailbreak. Of course, beyond the status boost, the owner of a jailbroken iPad can access apps, music, materials, games and more that others can’t. A lot of it is free and fun, some of it may be violating copyright laws, and there’s a good chance that it may contain or link to unsavoury content, including malware.

Jailbreaking has risks. First and foremost, Apple warns it can violate the warranty. If something goes wrong on a hacked iPad, “too bad, so sad” may be all the help the Genius Bar can offer. Second, and this is a big one, jailbreaking can open the device up to viruses and other yukky stuff. Apple has built its reputation on providing safety from such problems, but jailbreaking opens the device up to a world of cyber-nastiness.

A clever Aussie student from Wollongong has the dubious honour of creating the world’s first iPhone worm. He claimed this stunt was to highlight the security risks associated with jailbreaking. A few weeks later, another iPhone worm was detected in Europe, one that was compromising bank transactions carried out on iPhones. According to an article by Internet security experts Sophos, there have only been two iPhone viruses ever, and both affected only jailbroken products.

It appears that jailbreaking is not illegal in Australia (at the time of publication), but it is important to note that the complex international copyright issues are under review. Legal questions are not—thankfully—within the scope of my job description. I welcome comments from readers who can clarify the legality of jailbreaking in Australia.

If you are the parent of a student who is gifted at IT, have a talk with them about the ethics surrounding hacking. Schools and parents need to look for opportunities to steer their talents in positive directions, all the while guiding them and building a strong moral code into their character. If they are clever enough to jailbreak an iPad, they really need your input—and restrictions.

“How do I know if my child has carried out a jailbreak on his iPad?” parents may ask. One sign is that the app icons display differently. Instead of screen pages shifting horizontally, the icons are dynamic, bunching up or forming rings. The locked screen may display a grid of triangles which are touched in a particular sequence as a means of unlocking the device.

Kids need to understand that while jailbreaking may save a few pennies on music, apps and games, in the long run there are larger, costlier issues at stake. Copyright laws, security breaches, and cybercrime may seem like distant threats, but the problem caused by warranty violations hits the hip pocket and are quite real.