Are jailbreak apps illegal?

Jailbreaking iPhone and iPad: These are the pros and cons

Apple's devices have the reputation of a golden cage. This is especially true for the iPhone and iPad, on which you can only install software that Apple has activated for the AppStore.

But escape is possible! By jailbreaking (in German: "prison break") you can activate apps that Apple has not approved. Then you can adapt the design of the iPhone interface and retrofit additional functions that no official app offers. The jailbreak also has disadvantages, because it means, among other things, a security risk.

Note: For the sake of simplicity, we will only speak of iPhone and iOS below. So far, jailbreaks also work on the iPad under iPadOS.

This is what jailbreaking is all about

Jailbreak is a technical process that enables unsigned codes to be executed on iOS. To understand this, just take a quick look at how the iPhone starts apps. Once a developer has finished an app, he uploads it to the app store. If the app complies with the rules of the app store, Apple confirms this with a digital signature and enables the download. iOS checks the validity of the signature when the app is started.

If an iPhone is "jailbroken", it will also start apps that are not signed by Apple and that have been downloaded to the mobile phone outside the app store. Jailbreaking is legal in Germany and many other countries.

Brief history of jailbreaking

Jailbreaks are almost as old as iOS itself. As early as 2007, at the time of iOS 1.1, the first software appeared that could be used to unlock the iPhone. The ease of use has grown over the years so that even technically less ambitious users benefit from it today.

However, nothing has changed in the basic procedure. Jailbreaks use a weak point in the operating system to bypass the protective function. You can then install a package manager like Cydia that works as an alternative app store. Most of the time, you'll need a Windows PC or Mac to jailbreak. Few methods work directly on iPhone without additional hardware.

Apple is taking action against jailbreaks by closing the underlying security holes. The result is a seemingly endless race between hackers who find security holes and use them for jailbreaks, and Apple, who fixes the holes.

Current procedures are checkra1n and unc0ver. Checkra1n works permanently on all iPhones up to and including iPhone X, because it is based on a security flaw in the iPhone hardware that Apple cannot fix with software. Unc0ver supports younger models, currently up to and including iOS 13.5.

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Benefits of jailbreaking

Apple has specific guidelines for what apps are allowed both technically and in terms of content. Entire app categories are therefore excluded from the app store and reserved for alternative app stores such as Cydia. Five examples:

  1. Technically, it is no problem, for example, to increase the number of apps in the dock from four to five, to display the battery level in percent in the status bar or to replace Safari with another standard browser.
  2. Some functions are reserved for the iPad, but would also be useful on the iPhone. You can jailbreak picture in picture and tabs in Safari on the iPhone.
  3. iOS offers few options for customizing the interface. It is technically possible to change the design via themes and even install widgets.
  4. Apple does not allow emulators such as MAME, i.e. apps that simulate old game consoles on the iPhone and thus bring classic games to the smartphone.
  5. Security experts use the jailbreak to observe the behavior of apps on the iPhone. The necessary apps are not available via the AppStore because - as contradicting as that may sound - they override the security functions of iOS in order to enable observation.

Disadvantages of jailbreaking

Anyone who jailbreakes will bypass security functions and thus increase the risk that their cell phone will become the prey of attackers. This is also the reason why many banking apps refuse to work when they discover that they were started on a jailbroken device.

The security risk is even greater: you can no longer safely import iOS updates provided by Apple. If the update closes the security hole on which the jailbreak is based, then all the modifications you have made will be history.

Before you apply an update, you have to wait for the community to test it. If it shows that the jailbreak survived the update, you can install it. If the jailbreak is lost as a result of the update, then you only have the choice between plague and cholera: Either you forego the jailbreak until a new method is known, or your mobile phone remains without an update and thus without protection against the current threats.

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Another disadvantage threatens jailbreakers if the iPhone breaks. Apple expressly reserves the right to refuse service. The legal situation is ambiguous.

At least the warranty claims are likely to be retained, but Apple's voluntary warranty services could really be lost through the jailbreak.

The freedom gained by jailbreaking is not only used legally. For example, you can also find hacks that remove advertising from YouTube videos and thus threaten the business model of Google and numerous vloggers.

Some Pokémon players gain advantage by jailbreaking the game to fake the game in the wrong location. Even SIM cards not activated for this by the mobile operator can be jailbroken for tethering, i.e. to go online with the laptop or tablet via the mobile phone.

And finally, the jailbreak also forms the basis for using illegal app copies from the AppStore. Of course one can ask the question to what extent is the task of the operating system to protect the user from possibly illegal actions? From the perspective of the respective provider, the jailbreak definitely creates new problems.

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