Is jailbreaking an iPhone or iPad safe?

For millions of happy users all over the world, the iPhone is fantastic just as it is. It’s beautiful, elegant and easy to use, and there are thousands upon thousands of apps and oodles of content for them to choose on the App Store.

And then there are the people who aren’t so happy. People who want to break free of the restrictions they believe Apple has forced upon us all – from the default apps that come with iOS to the fact that its underlying structure cannot be customised by individual programmers, third-party developers or even users themselves.

These unhappy people are the jailbreakers. And Apple has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with them ever since the iPhone launched in January 2007.

It’s easy to understand the jailbreakers’ frustration. On the Mac you can pretty much do whatever you want to customise your day-to-day experience with the hardware. If you don’t want to use Mail for email or Safari for surfing, you can download alternatives such as Sparrow or Firefox instead.

Heck, you can even set them to be the default apps if you want, enabling you to ignore Mail, Safari and Apple’s other apps altogether.

This isn’t the case on the iPhone. While many great alternatives to iOS’s default apps do exist, you’ll find that iOS always reverts to the defaults for certain things.

Try clicking on an email address or a URL in an app, a document or web page and Mail and Safari will almost always boot up first, no matter which other alternatives you use.

Some third-party apps do offer the ability to open addresses in Google Maps rather than Apple Maps, but support has to be manually added and it’s not system-wide. 

Jailbreakers are frustrated by other things too: the fact that you can’t do simple things like change the iPhone’s default look and feel or install apps other than those available from the iOS App Store.

If you’re brave enough or wise enough (or foolish enough), you can easily tinker with the underpinnings of macOS using things like Terminal or rummaging around in the Library folder. No legitimate equivalent for users exist in iOS. You can only do what Apple lets you do. Unless you jailbreak your iPhone, that is.

In this article we’re going to examine jailbreaking and the reasons for and against jailbreaking an iPhone or iPad, to help you decide whether this is the right course of action for you and your Apple device.

Read next: iPhone 7 review | iPhone 7 Plus review | All iPhone reviews

What is jailbreaking?

Jailbreaking is the act of changing the iPhone (or iPad) software to remove the restrictions and limitations imposed by Apple. The principal limitation is that software can only be installed from the App Store. With a jailbroken phone you can install software from a rival to the App Store, and also manually using files downloaded from the internet.

Jailbreaking is different to iPhone unlocking. iPhones (like all mobile phones) that are sold as part of a contract are often locked to a particular network. This means that if you buy an iPhone from O2, for example, you have to use an O2 SIM card in it. The iPhone is ‘locked’ to that network.

Unlocking the iPhone turns it from an iPhone that can only work on the O2 network to one that can work on any network. But you will still be running officially sanctioned iOS software, and still have the software limitations. (Unlocking is considered a breach of your mobile phone contract, incidentally.)

Read next: How to jailbreak an iPhone or iPad | How to unjailbreak an iPhone

5 reasons to jailbreak your iPhone

  1. It’s your phone! You should be able to do what the heck you like with it
  2. You can download your apps from anywhere, not just from the App Store
  3. You can use alternatives to the default apps in iOS, many of which have more functionality
  4. You can customise your phone’s look and feel to suit your personality, rather than being stuck with the far more limited options in iOS
  5. You can tether your Mac to your iPhone and bypass your networks’ Mobile Hotspot feature, which is often severely restricted and/or expensive.

Jailbreaking your iPhone is relatively easy to do and legal (in most countries) – although the subject of Apple’s official disapproval, and likely to invalidate your warranties. (You may get round this by ‘unjailbreaking’ your device before taking it to an Apple Store for servicing.)

The way you jailbreak your iPhone depends on which version of iOS you’re running. (Brand-new versions of iOS generally cannot be jailbroken for some time after they come out. Jailbreakers will work hard to find a way to get round the new safeguards and restrictions that have been placed on the new software.) There are plenty of instructions and resources online that can help you.

Whatever you do, make sure you back up your iPhone’s data before you start just in case something goes wrong.

Another reason to back up your iPhone is that you will need to be able to restore to its non-jailbroken state if you ever need to take your iPhone into an Apple Store to have it repaired.

Apple Store employees will turn you away if you try to present such an iPhone to them as 1) jailbroken devices are in breach of the End User Licence Agreement (EULA) that comes with iOS; 2) and you will have effectively voided your iPhone’s warranty by breaking the EULA.

Read next: How to save SHSH blobs for an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

5 reasons not to jailbreak your iPhone

  1. You’ll invalidate your iPhone’s warranty. Apple Store employees are unlikely to be sympathetic if something goes wrong.
  2. Jailbreaking your iPhone will take you away from the safety of Apple’s ‘walled garden’ and dump you into an exciting, but occasionally dangerous, hinterland filled good apps and bad apps, crashy apps and malware. A bit like being an Android user.
  3. Your iPhone “just works” right out of the box. And brilliantly so. That’s enough for the overwhelming majority of iPhone users.
  4. Jailbreaking your iPhone is a cat and mouse game. Every update to iOS will break your jailbroken phone if you decide to update it. Or you may have to sit out and wait for an updated jailbreak to become available.  That may take days, weeks or even months.
  5. While being able to mod your iPhone to its very core sounds appealing, doing so can have unforeseen consequences. You may find that your iPhone crashes more often, that certain features and apps no longer work as they should and that your battery life becomes much shorter.

What else should you consider?

One of the biggest things to think about is who actually owns the iPhone you’re thinking of jailbreaking. If it’s yours, fire away. But what if it’s a work perk or has been given to you by your mum and dad or a friend?

In either of those two scenarios it’s probably wise to explain what you’re planning to do with the iPhone and why you think it’s a good idea. Your boss is highly unlikely to be sympathetic to your cause, especially if the jailbroken phone stops work-related apps from running properly. Or there’s any doubt about the iPhone’s security (on which subject more in a moment), especially if it’s being used on work’s networks, or to store, send or use business-critical data.

It’s a slightly different scenario with friends and family. While you may be able to persuade them, things could get complicated if they’re the ones who have to do the jailbreaking and/or fix any problems that may arise if something goes wrong.

Is jailbreaking legal?

We’re fairly confident that it is, but it’s surprisingly murky territory, with a lack of test cases to establish the matter definitively one way or the other.

Security expert Kenneth van Wyk, focusing on the legal situation in the US, writes:

“Is [jailbreaking] legal? Apparently it is, at least in the US. In 2010, the US Copyright Office declared jailbreaking to be an exception to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. But the situation is not exactly cut and dried. See here for more information, but it seems that jailbreaking an iPhone in the US remains legal, while doing the same to an iPad is not. The bottom line is this: if you’re at all concerned about the legality of jailbreaking your device, you’re probably well advised to abstain.”

Investigating the legality of jailbreaking in the UK, Macworld contributor Duncan Geere concludes:

“…while the matter can’t be totally settled until there’s a test case – something Apple has long avoided – [University of Edinburgh law lecturer Andres] Guadamuz says he’d be very surprised if a hacker went down for jailbreaking an iPhone. ‘Although you might be breaking Apple’s terms and conditions and voiding your warranty, I just can’t see how a judge would rule against it.'”

Is it safe to jailbreak an iPhone?

While your jailbroken iPhone isn’t going to blow up in your hand – or break the whole internet – it may not work exactly the way you’d like.

We cannot wholeheartedly recommend jailbreaking, and as a rule we wouldn’t do it to our own phones. Jailbreaking an iPhone is the sort of thing done by tinkerers, and isn’t advised for the average joe.

Put aside the moral arguments about who owns what (and who should pay for what) and you’re left with the practical advantages of jailbreaking – being able to install blocked software and replace key services – with the disadvantages of jailbreaking – having a less secure system that’s more error-prone.

Is jailbreaking secure? Jailbreaking and malware 

If you want to become a jailbreaker, go for it. But you should remember that life with your more customisable device is not necessarily going to be as carefree as you might think. You should always be on the alert for malware attacks.

Even when things seems to working smoothly, it’s important to be security-conscious. Some jailbreak tweaks may feature backdoors that let hackers access your personal details.

This is precisely what happened in August 2015, when it emerged that more than 225,000 jailbreakers’ iCloud login information was stolen as a result of “built-in backdoors” in jailbreak tweaks.

Security specialist Palo Alto Networks reported the breach, which was the result of a piece of malware that it refers to as KeyRaider and was instigated by hackers in China. (Some of the victims were also Chinese, but affected users were located in 18 countries all told.) The firm discovered the hacked user data on the black market, where it was being downloaded and used to make fraudulent in-app purchases.

The firm explains:

“The malware hooks system processes through MobileSubstrate, and steals Apple account usernames, passwords and device GUID by intercepting iTunes traffic on the device. KeyRaider steals Apple push notification service certificates and private keys, steals and shares App Store purchasing information, and disables local and remote unlocking functionalities on iPhones and iPads.

“KeyRaider has successfully stolen over 225,000 valid Apple accounts and thousands of certificates, private keys, and purchasing receipts. The malware uploads stolen data to its command and control (C2) server, which itself contains vulnerabilities that expose user information.”

It must be stressed that this sort of breach is not a common occurrence. But this is a timely reminder that the restrictions placed by Apple on its devices serve to improve their security as well as to limit your choices of third-party apps.

Following the KeyRaider breach, many prospective jailbreakers will be thinking long and hard about whether it’s worth the increased risk or (at the very least) paying more attention to security in future. 

Oh, and in a separate but related matter, a second recent breach confirmed that jailbroken devices are easier for governmental bodies to tap into. As our colleague Glenn Fleishman puts it:

“iOS users should therefore take note that the long-running concern that jailbroken iPhones and iPads were susceptible to vulnerabilities that could include access by so-called state actors appears to be confirmed by the data breach.”

Read more on that one here: Hacking Team hack reveals why you shouldn’t jailbreak your iPhone

What does Apple say about jailbreaking?

Apple is, as you might imagine, firmly opposed to jailbreaking. Apple frequently updates the iOS software to remove any jailbreak software from the iPhone, and is constantly updating iOS to prevent jailbreaking techniques from working.

Part of this is to protect its commercial interests. Apple runs the software store so it wants you to keep using the store. And developers spend time making software and want to get paid.

But there are other concerns: Apple wants the iPhone system to remain secure on the whole, and jailbreaking can threaten that. Apple identifies these concerns:

  • Security: jailbreaking removes the security layers on your iPhone
  • Instability: jailbreaking causes an iPhone to behave erratically
  • Shortened battery life: jailbreaking apps and services may not run correctly which may drain your battery
  • Unreliable voice and data
  • Disruption of services: Services such as Visual Voicemail, Weather and Stocks have been disrupted. iCloud, Exchange and Apple Push notification all suffer (according to Apple) on a jailbroken devices
  • Inability to update. Because Apple frequently removes jailbroken software in its updates, many jailbroken phones do not update. This can result it you running an out-of-date phone.
  • Read: Apple Support: Unauthorized modification of iOS can cause security vulnerabilities, instability, shortened battery life, and other issues

Read more: Apple sticks with jailbreaking-is-evil warning

How do I jailbreak an iPhone?

If you’re interesting in jailbreaking and you typically install a program on macOS or Windows that does it for you.

We have all the details of how to jailbreak an iPhone in a separate article. See: How to jailbreak an iPhone or iPad. 

Conclusion: Should you jailbreak an iPhone or iPad?

As we’ve hopefully spelled out above, there is plenty to be said for and against jailbreaking your iPhone or iPad. On the one hand, you’ll be able to customise your device in ways you never thought possible, download far more apps, and even get ahead of the curve by enjoying features and functionality that Apple simply hasn’t included in iOS yet. On the other hand, there are all kinds of – often very legitimate – reasons why you should just let your iPhone be, not least of which is the danger of another security breach.

It’s a personal decision, but we would sign off by mentioning once again that at time of writing, no member of the in-house Macworld UK team runs a jailbroken iOS device. That may change in the future, and some of our freelance contributors and US colleagues, for example, see things differently. But it gives a fair idea of our overall feelings on the matter.

Macworld poll: Are you a jailbreaker?

That’s it from us, but now we’d like to hear from you. Do you jailbreak your Apple devices? Have your say in our latest poll: