A jailbreak is a hack that seems to promise free apps, extra features, and better performance for your laptop, phone, gaming console, or even your tractor. Also called rooting, it instead removes essential security features from your device, leaving you vulnerable to stalkers, hackers, and thefts.
The history of jailbreaking is, ironically, largely one of freedom. Early hackers found that their computers had built-in restrictions from which they wanted to break free. Removing these restrictions provided freedom and a good programming challenge.
What’s the difference between rooting and jailbreaking?
Rooting and jailbreaking are the same thing, though jailbreaking is largely associated with iOS devices, which were often sold subsidized and locked to an expensive phone plan.
To ‘unlock’ the phone meant to exploit vulnerabilities in the phone’s operating system in a way that would upgrade privileges to ‘root’ or ‘superuser,’ allowing the user to install any program, and to generally control the device fully.
Some jailbreaks require you to re-jailbreak the device every time at startup, while other, more persistent manipulations are more permanent. All can be removed by reverting the phone to its factory setting—although there is the risk of ‘bricking’ the device and making it entirely useless.
Due to Android’s already open nature and the manufacturer’s permissive approach to ‘rooting,’ giving yourself full privileges on an Android phone is far more straightforward, but this can make manipulations more difficult to restore.
Rooted Android devices are far more common, even though the user already has access to a wider variety of features, and can install apps from unofficial stores or even installation files.
Rooting your device always makes it less secure
While some restrictions are indeed annoying, unnecessary, or built with the intent of milking users of their money, jailbreaks aren’t able to distinguish between necessary and malign limits.
For example, it is important that each installed app can only read its own data, and cannot access the data of other apps. Otherwise, they could obtain encryption keys, Bitcoin backup seeds, passwords, or your personal information. You would need to trust all your apps with all the data in your phone—an unnecessary and dangerous undertaking.
Additionally, rooting makes it easier for others to manipulate the software on your device, for example, by accessing its operating system when you plug it into somebody else’s USB port.
Your personal information would be entirely exposed, leaving you without privacy or any control of your data.
Here’s what to do instead of jailbreaking your phone
As jailbreaking or rooting is never an option for sane and security-minded folk like us, we must make other decisions when looking for the freedom to use our device the way we want. And to free us from poorly administered Digital Rights Management (DRM) or monopolistic restrictions.
1. Choose your device carefully
While it is relatively common to bundle software with hardware, not all devices are created equal. Some laptops and phones will make it relatively easy for you to install software, while others won’t.
Make a conscious decision before buying: Does the default software have the capabilities you expect, or can you install the operating system you want?
If you get a Laptop with Windows installed, do a quick search to see how well Linux runs on it. If you’re getting a phone, you might be interested in an Android alternative like LineageOS (formerly Cyanogen Mod).
2. Know what you are doing
If your device cannot easily be unbundled, make sure you know what you are doing. Cars and tractors, for example, also come with a proprietary operating system, but it can be more easily replaced than that of an iPhone.
It’s important that you know what you are doing, though, and what implications your alterations have on your safety and that of potential participants. Not all alternative firmware is well tested, and some might be outright malicious, too.
3. Campaign for the right to repair
Your fridge, car, phone, TV, or air conditioner is yours, and it should be yours to repair. Organizations like the EFF campaign to free hardware from license agreements, and to invalidate clauses that make it impossible for you to control the things you own.
You can also contact your local hackerspace or library about tips and communities (or even start one of your own).
Don’t jailbreak or root your device
There may be instances when it is appropriate to root or jailbreak a device, perhaps for testing purposes or, for example, to run an IMSI Catcher.
Either way, never jailbreak or root the device you are actively using for communications or data storage. Anything with your personal details on should never be rooted and any rooted device should always be a dedicated spare one.
If you’re worried that your device may be rooted, or simply want to make sure it is not, you can always reset your device to its factory settings, or reinstall the operating system.