The smartphone revolution put an amazing amount of computing power into our pockets. But that iPhone you tote around will only do what Apple and your carrier allow it to do. You play by their rules. You can download whatever apps you want from the App Store, but you can't download third-party apps Apple hasn't approved. You can tweak the settings menu to your heart's content, but you can't change the rules of Apple's operating system.
The desire to defeat these restrictions gave birth to the idea of“jailbreaking”—the process of setting a phone free from the cage that companies build around it. Today, people are still doing it for just about every consumer electronics device there is. Here’s what you need to know.
What is jailbreaking, really?
One way to think about how a device works from a software security standpoint is to imagine it as a castle. Anyone can do stuff outside the moat—say, open the internet browser app. The person who owns the phone can get inside the moat—they can download and install apps—and they can even get inside the castle walls, which might be going into settings and making some configurations.
But somewhere, in the highest tower, is stuff that only the people who made the device get access to. This is the inner sanctum where the foundational code that determines how the device works lives. When you jailbreak a phone, you’re passing yourself off as someone who can get into every room in the castle, even if you’re just a peasant. That’s why you’ll also hear jailbreaking called “privilege escalation.”
Any other names?
When it comes to Android devices, you’ll usually hear rather than “jailbreaking,” but functionally it's pretty much the same thing.
So it’s not just iPhones that can be jailbroken?
Nope. You can jailbreak Android phones, too, and pretty much any consumer device you might want to use in a way not intended by its manufacturer. People jailbreak Amazon Firesticks and Roku streaming boxes to run media software they prefer to the built-in apps, and Nintendo Switches to run emulated games.
So you can make a jailbroken device run other software?
Yes, because you can give a device features it doesn’t have according to the manufacturer’s spec. Take the iPhone. You can add the ability to tether—use the phone’s cellular collection to create a Wi-Fi network other devices can hop on—even if your device and plan don’t allow it. You can install apps that Apple doesn’t allow. You can redesign the look and feel of the OS.
Is this legal?
If it were up to the manufacturers, it probably wouldn’t be legal. But courts have affirmed that consumers have the right to jailbreak their devices—in the U.S., anyway (). That said, if you jailbreak your device, you’ve probably voided the warranty.
So is it safe?
By circumventing the manufacturer’s software, you’ve also circumvented the manufacturer’s security. You could be opening yourself up to malware and other issues like hacking or privacy violations. Whether or not to jailbreak is really a caveat emptor proposition, and certainly not something for casual or novice users. You're opening Pandora's Box not only for you to play in, but also for anyone else who can gain access to your phone. Also, jailbreaking some devices runs the risk of bricking them if you do it wrong, that is to say completely destroying your device permanently. So be aware of the risks.
Okay. How do I actually do it?
It varies from device to device, but generally speaking: You download a jailbreaking software package, then follow its instructions to get its code implemented on your device. Note that this also varies with each new OS release for your device. Apple, for example, updates its security protocols with each update to iOS, so there’s always a bit of a time lag before there’s new jailbreaking software available, and there's no guarantee that a given device can be jailbroken, but the hackers usually find a way. Just be patient, and, of course, be careful.