I’ve hacked my phone. I didn’t personally write the computer code which allowed me to do that. Why would I? It is already written. The hackers who worked out how to do it simply published the instructions online for free. Allow me to explain. If you want the really technical details, follow the links. For everyone else, just read on. If you aren’t at all technically minded, there may some passages with jargon you are unfamiliar with but don’t worry, I keep this explanation fairly simple.
Phone hacking has been much in the news recently. The phrase has been coined by journalists to describe other journalists from obtaining access to other people’s voicemail. The technique is remarkably simple. Your mobile phone’s voicemail will activate when it is called by your number. To spy on someone else’s mobile voicemail, all you have to do is phone their number from their number. To do that, specialist software is available online, which allows you to declare what number you are making the call from. The spies just type in their target’s number and bingo! I would have called this activity “spying”. Journalists do not like to use a nice old fashioned word when a more frightening one is available. Over many years the established media has run scare stories about computer hackers. They have distorted the original meaning of the word so much that they have given it a second meaning. Having whipped up a fear of hackers, they now use this word pejoratively whenever they can.
Hacking is actually quite an old word, which has obtained several meanings. Here goes:
- Cut with rough or heavy blows.
- Ride a horse for pleasure or exercise.
- A contentious term used in computing for several types of person
Techies call the person who circumvents a computer security system a cracker. Journalists prefer not to educate their readers so rather than use the word cracker, they just call them hackers even though hackers actually do something different. There are two types of computer hacker. Firstly, there are those who make innovative customizations or combinations of retail electronic and computer equipment and, secondly, there are those who share an anti-authoritarian approach to software development now associated with the free software movement. The established media are terrified of people discovering the last group of people because they help undermine the proprietary systems which make so much money. These vested interests have much in common with the privately owned media. There’s no need to be a conspiracy theorist about this. This is well established fact.
My new phone was delivered on Tuesday: a Samsung Galaxy S II (SGS2). It’s a beautiful piece of kit. I followed these instructions from CyanogenMod which taught me how to install a customized aftermarket firmware distribution onto my new phone. In other words a new operating system made by hackers! This operating system is open source which means that anyone can download the computer code, examine it and modify it. Open Source software is always free.
Despite knowing that mobile network companies’ warranties do not allow this sort of carry on, Samsung actually sent one of their first SGS2s to the CyanogenMod hacking crew (there are about 45 of them at the moment, producing open source firmware for dozens of devices). The physical architecture of the SGS2 is impressive. We might need capitalist companies to make these devices but we need socialists to make them work better. Hackers are effectively socialists: they give what they can and share it with anyone who feels the need.
Before and after a hacker changed the operating system (results not from my SGS2)
On Wednesday, after a busy day working for the legal team at Occupy London, I was relaxing in the evening in a City pub. One of my fellow Occupationists had also just obtained the SGS2. His phone was running on the operating system provided via his phone company. This is called a stock rom. We both downloaded the same benchmarking software from the Android Market: Quadrant (the standard edition). A benchmarking app performs a series of technical tests on your phone and produces a score. My phone tore through the tests visibly quicker than my friend’s but the real proof was in the score. My SGS2 now scores 3,314 which was a little over 10% higher than my friend’s. That is proof that the open source operating system I have installed on my phone performs significantly better than the stock roms.
As well as wanting the best operating system for my new phone, I also wanted root access so that I could install apps which allow me extra freedom. Having sold you the phone the mobile network wish to save themselves the hassle of dealing with you after you from mistakenly turn your phone into poor quality paperweight by deleting files that you wouldn’t normally have access to. Root access gives you access to every part of the file system on the phone. I wasn’t entirely sure whether Cyanogen’s instructions gave root access or just changed the operating system so I followed some other instructions to obtain root access first. In particular I use the Titanium Backup, Rom Manager and the incredible SetCPU, all of which are free.
This week a scandal broke in America: 41 million mobile phones were revealed to have embedded software called Carrier IQ. This software was hidden from the user, who does not have root access and cannot see the source code for the operating system used on their phones. The software is apparently used to assist the mobile networks in gathering information about when apps crash on phones. The scandal relates to independent research which says that the software can also record lots of other information about how the phone is used. The most pressing concern is that it can record keystrokes, which means that phone user’s passwords and other confidential information could have been conveyed to the mobile networks. Trevor Eckhart made the discovery.
This week Wikileaks has revealed the full extent of industrial surveillance around the world. It is massive. Julian Assange announced at a press conference two days ago that if you use an Iphone, a blackberry or gmail you are “screwed”. Wikileaks says, “Mass interception of entire populations is not only a reality, it is a secret new industry spanning 25 countries It sounds like something out of Hollywood, but as of today, mass interception systems, built by Western intelligence contractors, including for ’political opponents’ are a reality.” I dare say that they’ve got my number but luckily they do not have my behavioural metrics because CyanongenMod have confirmed that Carrier IQ will never be included in their open source operating system. They can’t lie about this because all of their source code is public. The moral of this story is that we need the hackers to prevent the spies.