You can now unlock or get access to tablets, vehicle software, video games, and more – and stay within the law.

cellphone unlocked-3Following congressional approval last year for the unlocking of cell phones, the Librarian of Congress has now adopted a broad exemption that permits the unlocking of all wireless handsets, including smart phones and “phablets.” A cell handset obtained through a carrier (such as Verizon or AT&T) usually comes software-configured to operate only on that carrier’s network. Unlocking the handset allows it to connect to competing carriers.

The Librarian has also authorized (among other things) circumventing software controls to unlock or gain access to:

  • tablets;
  • wireless modems;
  • wearable wireless devices such as smartwatches and fitness devices;
  • smart meters and smart appliances;
  • smart TVs;
  • video game software (for limited purposes);
  • voting machines;
  • vehicle software (other than telematics and entertainment systems); and
  • implanted medical devices, to access the patient’s own data.

The same order authorizes the “jailbreaking” of a handset or tablet: modifying it so as to (a) install apps and other software not approved by the carrier, and (b) remove apps the carrier tried to make non-removable. Also authorized is the examination of computer programs for security research.

Without these special exemptions from the Librarian, each activity above would arguably violate the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and expose the perpetrator to a fine of up to $500,000 and up to five years in the federal penitentiary. Click here for background on why this is so.

The Librarian declined to authorize the unlocking of or access to:

  • digital rights management (DRM) controls on digital media for the purpose of playing on alternative devices or to make back-up copies, even for personal use;
  • ditto for e-books;
  • dedicated e-book readers such as the Kindle; and
  • video game consoles (as opposed to game software).

You may ask why the Librarian of Congress, traditionally a keeper of books, gets to regulate high-tech devices. The Librarian has always been in charge of administering the Copyright Act, which seemed reasonable enough in the days of paper. When Congress made the relevant sections of the DMCA part of the Copyright Act, that brought a wide range of digital issues – such as unlocking – within the Librarian’s purview. Many tech bloggers, along with the FCC Chairman, have questioned whether issues relating to sophisticated software are in the right hands.

The Librarian’s order is here. Get comfortable; it’s a long read.

Then have fun hacking.