Talk is Cheap: The Culture of Unlocking Cell Phones

Near the Nostrand Avenue-Fulton Street intersection, where the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy collide, there are a few places that will unlock your cell phone. Nestled between fast-food outlets, discount department stores, T-shirt stands, and sneaker shops, these vendors have emerged to fulfill a demand in a world where consumers want more and more freedom when it comes to their phone’s capabilities and services while manufacturers and wireless providers want these to be restricted.

Unlocking a phone allows you to switch wireless carriers while jailbreaking a phone, or another electronic, allows you to modify a device’s operating system, giving you access to features inherent to the device but that the manufacturer has restricted–like adding a flashlight feature to a cell phone or being able to adjust manual settings on a normally automatic camera. Shops that offer these services rarely specialize in them, and instead add it to other products like shoes and cell phone accessories or electronics repair. For this reason, plus the fact that some don’t advertise too loudly, it’s hard to get an exact number of how many and where they are in the city. But you can usually find them near other underground markets. Around the corner from the three unlocking shops near Nostrand and Fulton, a vendor sells perfume out of a plastic bottle marked by hand “Paris Hilton.”

If you want us to unlock it, we will, but I’m not allowed to tell you how we do it,” an employee at Wireless Solutions on Fulton Street told me over the telephone when I started asking questions beyond how much it would cost for them to unlock an iPhone. It’s not surprising that small businesses providing such a service are tight-lipped. Although unlocking and jailbreaking phones has been explicitly legal since 2010 when it was added to a list of exemptions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), George Holtz, famous for being the first person to unlock an iPhone, was sued by Sony for jailbreaking a Playstation 3 console and settled out of court.

There are the first people with the ideas and then there is the rest of the crowd that follows,” said Manvinder Singh who unlocks phones at Foot Plaza on Nostrand Avenue, explaining how precocious hackers like Holtz first figure out how to break the manufacturer’s or operator’s restrictions on a device and then share the know-how with others online. On a computer in the shop, he was eager to show a Facebook photo of himself with Ankit Fadia, another famous hacker from Singh’s native India. Compared with someone’s grandmother, you could consider Singh an expert when it comes to unlocking, but in contrast to Holtz or Fadia, he is just one of the crowd.

The DMCA, first passed in 1998, aims to protect copyright in the changing media landscape. As part of a review that occurs every three years, the Copyright Office added jailbreaking and unlocking to a list of exemptions. Apple was opposed to these exemptions, claiming that the DMCA should protect the copyrighted encryption in the iPhone’s operating system.

I think consumers understand the concept you bought it, you own it and you should be able to modify it,” said Rebecca Jeschke, digital rights analyst of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit that that proposed the exemptions to the Copyright Office. On the EFF web site, they note that jailbreaking is used for a range of purposes from digital remix artists modifying electronics for art and music to disabled persons modifying their phone into an aid.

Unlocking, on the other hand, is usually used for one reason. Frequently, people buy phones at a subsidized rate when they sign a contract with a service provider, then they unlock the phone, and are able to use the phone with any service provider as if they bought the phone for full price. The new iPhone 5 with 16GB of storage starts at $199 with a two-year contract with a wireless service provider but without a contract it costs$649. Even though it came out a little over a week ago, there are already precocious techies online offering to unlock Apple’s new model for as low as $35. Singh can’t do the iPhone 5 yet, but he charges around $80 to restore the iPhone 4 to factory settings, a rate that is on par with other outlets in the city like Wireless Solutions and Mobile 21.

According to Singh, this is why companies like Apple don’t like people unlocking their phones. “You’re spoiling their market,” he said.

Apple seems to be surviving the spoilage. Between April 2010 and March 2012, they earned gross margins of 49 to 58 percent for U.S. iPhone sales, according to sales figures that were made public during Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung. Apple preferred these figures not be released but the judge denied their request for privacy. At the time of press, no one from Apple was available for comment.