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Tech Lab

Taking control of your phone, the hard way

And here you thought that the cellphone in your pocket belonged to you. Not quite.

Telecom titans AT&T Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp., Apple Inc., and Google Inc. have installed software on millions of phones to limit what their users can do, sometimes for their greater profit, sometimes for the consumer’s own good.

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Start with “locking.” That’s the controversial policy that uses software to tie cellphones to a particular carrier’s network. Buy a phone at the AT&T store, and you cannot use it to place calls via T-Mobile USA because of the locking software.

You can buy an unlocked phone, but that generally means paying full price, instead of the discount you get when you sign up for a two-year contract. Or, for $10 to $20, you can purchase codes to unlock a phone. Until late January, such lock-picking was legal, but not any more, thanks to a ruling from, of all places, the Library of Congress. This agency oversees our copyright laws, and it decided that unlocking violates a 1998 law designed to prevent copyright violations. As of now, you can only unlock your phone if the carrier agrees to it. Otherwise, the phone company could sue you for up to $2,500 in civil damages.

Nobody thinks this will happen; the real targets of the law are big-time criminals hoping to unlock and sell thousands of stolen phones. They could face up to five years in prison for unauthorized unlocking.

Still, online civil libertarians hate the new ban, and so does the White House, which has come out for a change in the law.

Even when legal, unlocking carries limited benefits. Say you are an AT&T customer and you unlock your handset. Now you’re looking forward to using the phone on Verizon Wireless. Too bad.

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Most of the world has standardized on a cellular technology called GSM. In the United States, AT&T and T-Mobile use this system. But the other two majors, Verizon Wireless and Sprint, use a system called CDMA, which is incompatible with GSM. In Europe or Asia, where many phone companies use GSM, an unlocked phone is very handy. Over here, not so much.

Far more interesting, and more risky, is the other popular way of liberating your phone. It is called “jailbreaking” or “rooting,” and while quite legal, it is a bit of a gamble.

Today’s smartphones are as powerful as the desktop computers of a few years ago. But your desktop computer will run any kind of software you like; there are no built-in limits. This is why so many get infected with dangerous viruses.

Smartphone makers wanted no part of this, so they use operating systems that are locked down tight. On the ­iPhone, for instance, you can only install Apple-approved software apps. Google’s Android system is more open, but consumers and app makers still cannot get access to its most advanced features.

Unless they cheat. With free software available on the Internet, you can “jailbreak” an ­iPhone or Android to add apps and other features you cannot get any other way.

The basic process is pretty simple, but it would void your phone’s warranty and if done wrong, could put the phone out of commission permanently. That is why I used a pair of obsolete, out-of-warranty handsets, an iPhone 3GS and a Samsung Corp. Nexus S ­Android phone, and backed up all data before starting.

Jailbreaking the iPhone took a couple of minutes using a free app called Evasion. It took me considerably longer to figure out the instructions for raiding the Android phone. But I am glad I did. This two-year-old device now runs much faster and has lots of new capabilities.

For instance, I came across a $7 app called Titanium Backup Pro, which lets me back up all my apps with a tap of the screen. The cool part is that it backs them up to an Internet cloud service, like Dropbox or Google Drive. Even if you lose your phone, you would not lose your stuff. I’m also fond of AdFree, a no-charge app that does away with those little advertisements that pop up inside other apps. I’ve been using ad blockers on my desktop for years; now I’ve got one in my pocket.

But thanks to jailbreaking, I’ve also got a level of control that most smartphone users will never know. It is as though I actually own my phone.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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