Student earns $50k a year jailbreaking iPhones

Apr 8, 2011
Tech

It’s called jailbreaking — a process of removing blocks and unlocking an iPhone to free it from the iron grip of Apple’s control — and there are a lot of iPhone owners who do it. They usually tend to be tech savvy hacker-types. But there are also a lot of us less-savvy rubes who wouldn’t […]

It’s called jailbreaking — a process of removing blocks and unlocking an iPhone to free it from the iron grip of Apple’s control — and there are a lot of iPhone owners who do it. They usually tend to be tech savvy hacker-types.

But there are also a lot of us less-savvy rubes who wouldn’t mind having access to non-Apple-approved apps, free device tethering, the ability to customize ringtones and backgrounds, and the freedom to enable alternative carriers. For us, there is Kevin Lee, a senior at George Mason University.

According to a story in the Washington Post, Lee is making $50,000 jailbreaking iPhones for 30 to 40 customers a week. Lee advertises using Craigslist and can break iPhones in a couple of minutes with the right code, unlocking them so his customers can use them with other carriers and change a lot of the visual look of the phone.

It’s all perfectly legal, according to the government — despite other cases of modding and hacking of devices, like Sony’s PlayStation 3, the Library of Congress has determined that jailbreaking doesn’t violate Apple’s copyright protections on the iPhone. Hackers get in trouble when they mess with PlayStations and other video game devices because doing so often enables piracy. Nobody’s using jailbroken iPhones for that purpose, so owners are free to do what they will, it seems.

Jailbreaking is quickly becoming not just a hobby or a novelty, but an industry. Free iPhones can download apps from stores other than Apple’s, and the store that leads the pack is called Cydia. With 4.5 million actively weekly users, Cydia reports it’s raking in about $10 million a year. That means jailbreak app developers are doing okay, too.

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But Apple isn’t happy about the whole jailbreak situation, as one might guess, and Lee might want to consider turning down the next journalist who wants to talk to him about the practice, lest Apple find a way to unleash its legal wrath on him. The company is actively trying to find ways of curtailing jailbreaking and tightening its control on the iPhone and what people can do with it.

Apple recently put some pressure on Toyota after the company released a free app to the Cydia store and put an ad in another jailbreak app store, forcing the car maker to pull both if it wanted to maintain a relationship with Apple and offer apps in the iTunes App Store.

Obviously, there’s a lot of money to be made, and Apple doesn’t want people going behind its back to earn it without the company taking its piece or maintaining its control. But with the iPhone continuing to gain ground among consumers, jailbreaking clearly is going to continue to grow more prevalent — until Apple wins a lawsuit and starts coming down hard on all these black markets. When, and if, that will ever happen remains anybody’s guess, though.

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Phil Hornshaw

Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer, editor and author living in Los Angeles, dividing his time between playing video games, playing video games on his cell phone, and writing about playing video games. He’s also the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel, which attempts to mix time travel pop culture with some semblance of science, as well as tips on the appropriate means of riding dinosaurs. Check out his profile.

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