Hackers Close to Cracking iPhone

By Lisa Vaas Print this article Print

iPhone hackers are on the cusp of being able to write programs for the device and cut users' ties to Cingular.

iPhone hackers are on the cusp of not only being able to write programs for the phone but also finding a way to cut the device's tether to Cingular's service plans.

According to one of the group of hackers who are working collaboratively via wiki and #iphone IRC channel, one of the last major hurdles has been the lack of a high-quality ARM assembler tailored for the iPhone. That missing link as of the afternoon of July 16 had been developed to the pre-alpha stage. Developers are at the point where they now have a working GNU debugger.

One of the first iPhone hacks came from Jon Lech Johansen, aka DVD Jon. A self-trained Norwegian software engineer, Johansen on July 3 announced on his blog that he had hacked a new, unactivated iPhone, managing to activate it without turning on AT&T Cingular phone service. But although Johansen managed to get the iPod and Wi-Fi capabilities of an iPhone turned on with his hack, he couldn't get the device to work as a phone. "Stay tuned!" for that, Johansen said at the time.

It's now in fact impossible to buy an iPhone without a Cingular service plan attached to it, unless the buyer's credit is bad. In that case, Apple has prepaid service options.

The world of iPhone watchers has been bubbling with other tips on how to get out of paying Cingular for iPhone phone service; in order to "wreck" one's credit, for example, one suggestion is to enter 999-99-9999 as a Social Security number.

Other suggestions focus on getting out of Cingular's clutches without early termination fees. Wireless carriers impose early termination fees purportedly to recoup lost revenues from discounted or free phones they use to lure in new customers, but Apple has not discounted its pricey iPhone, which makes Cingular's $175 early termination fee particularly galling.

Given the above, the urge to unlock the iPhone is understandable.

It's also legal.

That point was made clear when the Library of Congress clarified the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) in November 2006. Prior to this ruling, cell phone customers were often forced to either return or throw away old phones upon switching carriers because the DCMA was interpreted to mean that the old cell phone was actually the old carrier's property. The November 2006 ruling stipulated that the software that restricts consumers from accessing their phones' firmware wasn't based as much on copyright law as it was on the carriers' business models.

The United States is behind the times when it comes to the prevalence of unlocked cell phones, but it's not an entirely unknown concept. CompUSA has been selling them for months.

One of the major reasons to unlock the iPhone, as with any cell phone, is that when traveling outside the United States, consumers with unlocked phones can buy a pre-paid plan with a service provider in a given country and thus avoid a high-priced international service plan.

Read details here about some of the bugs found in the iPhone soon after Apple released it.

There are reasons why unlocking an iPhone is a bad idea, however. First, users who unlock their iPhones will lose proprietary iPhone features such as Visual Voicemail. Second, there's the early termination fee of $175 paid to Cingular unless service is cancelled within 30 days of purchase.

There are ways to get out of paying early termination fees, including selling the contract, enlisting in the military, moving out of coverage range or dying, each of which presents its own challenges, to say the least.

Check out eWEEK.com's Security Center for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEK's Security Watch blog.

This article was originally published on 2007-07-16
Lisa Vaas is News Editor/Operations for eWEEK.com and also serves as editor of the Database topic center. Since 1995, she has also been a Webcast news show anchorperson and a reporter covering the IT industry. She has focused on customer relationship management technology, IT salaries and careers, effects of the H1-B visa on the technology workforce, wireless technology, security, and, most recently, databases and the technologies that touch upon them. Her articles have appeared in eWEEK's print edition, on eWEEK.com, and in the startup IT magazine PC Connection. Prior to becoming a journalist, Vaas experienced an array of eye-opening careers, including driving a cab in Boston, photographing cranky babies in shopping malls, selling cameras, typography and computer training. She stopped a hair short of finishing an M.A. in English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She earned a B.S. in Communications from Emerson College. She runs two open-mic reading series in Boston and currently keeps bees in her home in Mashpee, Mass.
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