An Apple Employee on Jail Breaking

To understand Apple’s stance on jailbreaking, we first need to explore the early history of the iPhone and the roots of jailbreaking (pun intended). As an Apple employee from 2010 to January 2020 I have a good insight into how the company views jailbreaking both historically and in more recent times.

Since the original iPhone was announced, the developer community wanted direct access to the platform. Initially Apple announced support for web apps on the first version of iOS (then referred to as iPhoneOS 1.0 but absolutely no support for native apps. When the first iPhone got into the hands of developers and the general public, it didn’t take long before iPhoneOS 1.0 was cracked via root access. Unauthorised third party apps began to appear and this had meaningful implications for the future of the platform. With the combination of modified features and native (albeit unapproved) apps, the term ‘jailbreaking’ was coined and home brew iPhone development was born.

2007

The launch of the first iPhone hardware was surrounded with spectacle. Everyone wanted one but few people could get one. The iPhone launched in a very limited capacity with just one carrier partner, the new AT&T network in the USA. You couldn’t buy the device without a carrier plan never mind any other country outside of the USA….in theory.

I was a young teenager when Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone and I immediately knew I had to have one. I ignored the fact that it wasn’t possible to buy one right away in the UK. Instead I paid over £1200 saved up by waiting tables to have one shipped across the pond from the USA. I bought the device from a USA customer with buyers remorse on eBay. There was just one problem. Every iPhone was locked to AT&T. Fortunately the jailbreaking community quickly fixed that problem and I was able to use my UK carrier sim in my stow away iPhone. At the time I could care less for the ability to modify the software. I was just grateful to have this shiny new device in my hand without having to wait. I wasn’t alone. While the original iPhone only shipped in the USA to start with, they found their way to a whole lot of other countries. Jailbreaking made the iPhone go global ahead of time and Apple took notice.

2008

When Apple announced the follow up to the original iPhone, the iPhone 3G in the summer of 2008, it came along with the iPhoneOS 2.0 SDK and support for many more countries. This was an important update. Apple had finally listened to the concerns of the developer community and created tools to allow approved third party app development. Steve Jobs was famously averse to the idea of a third party app market initially. He was suspicious of the potential quality of third party apps and with good reason. Up until the App Store in 2008, third party apps for other smartphone platforms sucked. They ran crippled, baby versions of the apps that we know and love today. But with the introduction of the App Store, a large portion of the development community was satisfied. Small and large developers finally had an avenue to leverage the revolutionary multi touch technology of the iPhone without the worry of breaching software copyright law.

Dissent amongst the ranks

Apple is well known for their desire to control their mobile platform and primary technology with an iron grip. By enabling third party apps, this was a concession on Apple’s part. Wether they liked it or not, third party apps were inevitable and absolutely critical to the future success of the iPhone. Countless internal debates took place over the mechanism that would allow this to happen. The argument for this to continue to take place via web apps was swiftly defeated. The jailbreaking community had already shown the significant performance benefits of running the apps using the on board silicon of the iPhone. It wasn’t that Apple didn’t already know this at a practical level, of course they did. Just like the decision to launch the original iPod only on the Mac, the decision to launch the first iPhone without third party app support was about control.

Letting go….kind of

In typical Apple style they still found a way to exert a level of control over third party apps. Apple created the iPhone SDK and to this day govern the curation and distribution of apps. Here are a few reasons why Apple took this approach:

  • By using human curation to manage the platform, apps work as advertised and have to do what they say they do. Each and every app is screened and vetted before it ever gets into the hands of customers.
  • Developers have to use public APIs. Unauthorised APIs are a one way ticket to an app being rejected from the platform. Apple doesn’t want developers poking around with unauthorised APIs that might cause customer detriment such as poor performance, battery life etc, never mind security concerns.
  • By governing the platform, Apple ensures that apps respect customer privacy and operate in a sandbox. Apps can’t reach into other apps and suck up the data inside those apps without explicit consent of the user.
  • By controlling the distribution of apps, Apple was able to charge developers for the privilege of hosting their apps on the platform. Apple takes a 30% cut of revenue for all paid apps sold on the App Store.

Jailbreaking persists

In spite of the wider availability of the iPhone globally and the launch of the App Store, jailbreaking didn’t stop. There are various reasons why this was and still is the case. Apple to this day offers very little customisation of the user interface, certain kinds of apps and experiences remain limited or locked out of the approved App Store and unfortunately, jailbreaking provides avenues to install pirated App Store apps.

Apple has expressed public disapproval of jailbreaking but internally it isn’t that straight forward. Whilst from a legal stand point, jailbreaking might be considered in breach of copyright laws, in practice this remains largely untested by the courts. One of the reasons is that the discovery of bugs and exploits benefits Apple. Apple wants to discourage jailbreaking to their wider customer base but indirectly, the jailbreaking community alerts Apple to serious kernel exploits. Only in the last few days the Unc0ver team were credited by Apple with informing them of the exploit that allows for any device running iOS 13.5 to be jailbroken. This vulnerability was very quickly patched with last weeks release of iOS 13.5.1.

Apple has played a constant game of cat and mouse with the jailbreaking community right from the start. While Apple benefits from the discovery of exploits, they have little appetite for security and privacy violations that go on to harm users. While many jailbreakers just want to play around with a few UI tweaks, unfortunately the same exploits that make jailbreaking possible act as an invitation for bad actors.

One of the clear areas of concern for Apple is that jailbreaking provides an easy avenue to install pirated App Store apps. Apple makes a lot of money on the sale of apps, in-app purchases and subscriptions to freemium apps. Allowing people to circumnavigate the need to pay for content is something Apple will never tolerate. Apple has become more and more reliant on the sale of apps and services as a revenue generator. Anything that might allow people to get around the need to pay is harmful both to developers that earn a living from the distribution of apps on the App Store and to Apple’s own bottom line.

Apple and Jailbreaking Today

Ask most Apple employees how they feel about jailbreaking and individually, most are indifferent to the idea in of itself. Some might describe concerns about privacy and security, senior leaders would certainly express concern about the impact to revenue but internally there is a quiet sense of admiration for the jailbreaking community. It isn’t hard to see that Apple has taken inspiration from the jailbreaking community for certain features and UI changes in iOS over the years. Apple has even hired developers directly because of their work in the jailbreaking scene!

If you’ve ever wondered what will happen if you take a jail broken iPhone to an Apple Store for service at the Genius Bar, most of the technicians won’t care. Most of them have probably tried it themselves at some point in private. In theory your device can be denied for service but this is something that a simple software restore will put right. It’s quite probable that most Genius Bar technicians will take little if any notice that your device is jail broken, never mind care.

With the exception of the original iPhone, I personally don’t choose to jailbreak my devices nor do I condone it or vilify it. I remain indifferent. Your device is still your device and the possible negative consequences of jailbreaking are for you to consider. As an Apple employee, I’d have told you to avoid it. As a now former employee I’d say the choice is yours but do consider the possible negative consequences and security risks. Anybody that tells you jailbreaking doesn’t pose a security risk is either uneducated on the subject or behaving foolishly. It isn’t a coincidence for example that many banking apps won’t function on a jail broken device.

What do you think about jailbreaking? Have you tried it? Are you currently running a jail broken device? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment below 👌

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