Jailbreaking is not currently illegal on most devices, but using illegal applications and software through jailbreaking certainly is. This procedure is legal only because the DMCA does not cover the process specifically. However, jailbreaking is currently illegal on the iPad.
The reason the iPad is off-limits is because of the ambiguous terminology of the word “tablet.” A portable video game console (like the GameBoy) could be referred to as a tablet as easily as an e-reader or Kindle. By allowing jailbreaking on those devices, protections for gaming consoles could potentially erode.
Unlawful unlocking can have consequences. Service carriers are allowed to unlock your device, but an unapproved third party or self-service is considered unlawful. Fines for unlocking a device without consent can be steep. Civil suits filed against an unlocked phone can result in a fine of up to $2,500. The practice can be tried as a criminal case if the phone owner stands to make a profit by unlocking the device. This “commercial advantage” can net the offender five years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines.
Currently, Apple and other developers are lobbying to make jailbreaking and rooting illegal. As of right now the best they can do is void your warranty in very specific instances.
Rooting and jailbreaking are the practices of removing certain restrictions on operating systems to serve the owner’s purposes. Hacking any Apple products’ DRM is collectively called jailbreaking, and rooting refers to bypassing Android DRM. Nearly all manufacturers of electronic devices from tablets to smart phones have protections called Digital Rights Management (DRM) software.
DRM serves two purposes. The first is for software security. Those who use Amazon’s one-click purchasing option freely enjoy the protections provided by DRM to secure their account data. The second purpose is to provide software limitation to protect the software and hardware manufacturers. By hacking the DRM for personal purposes, you are committing a crime.
Rooting and jailbreaking are usually accomplished by installing malicious software onto the phone that bypasses certain restrictions. For instance, jailbreaking usually entails installing a series of software called kernel patches. Kernels are strings of code that supervise the operating system. By circumventing kernels, you can install your own code that helps run the device.
Unlocking is a term sometimes used interchangeably with jailbreaking, but it means something different. Unlocking refers specifically to the process of allowing your phone to work with any carrier. In other words, unlocked phones can change service from AT&T or Verizon to another carrier without company intervention.
Rooting is the process of allowing yourself root-level access on a device. By rooting a product, you are essentially giving yourself elevated administrative rights that are typically impermissible.
There are other hacks that go hand-in-hand with these processes. Users can change the icon dock to install their own UIs or illegal emulation software for video games and movies. Cydia is a hack for Apple products that is incredibly popular on jailbroken devices. It has its own app store with free and paid apps alike. Cydia is technically legal, but some of the apps that work on the platform are not.
Hacks put users at danger, though users are often unaware of the risk. Many malware and software virus programmers target users who have installed programs like Cydia, since the loss of restrictions also compromises device security. A study by the UCSB looked at over 1,400 free programs for hacked devices. Of them, 21% of these apps made the devices’ IDs available and 4% gave away user locations with GPS. Some of the apps from Cydia even leaked photos, browsing histories, and private information.