Can Rooting Your Android Device Actually Land You In Jail Now?

Any Android customer knows about the restrictions that come with purchasing one of these phones. When you first make the purchase, you see that the phone has many default settings that are fixed. Although you can download some features, you cannot change the apps installed by the carriers or the general setup of the phone. Many people have gotten around the rigidity of this system by rooting their phones. Rooting enables people to gain the kind of control over their phone that is virtually limitless.

You can gain access to all files on your phone, including the ones that were originally blocked by the manufacturer. Then, you have a huge number of options in customizing your phone in almost any way you want. You can delete any of the default applications that you would not have control over otherwise, and you have access to several apps that are off-limits to those who conform to the carrier’s guidelines. Basically, you have unlimited freedom in the look and workings of your phone. Many of these services and features are not available through your phone carrier.


Even if they are, there are typically less options, and the options that are available do not entail nearly the level of capability as the ones accessible through a rooted phone. For all of these reasons, many people have rooted their phones; in fact, many owners of rooted Androids have benefited so much from the rooting process that they do not understand how anyone could opt not to do this.

However, rooting your phone is not unequivocally positive. Although rooting your phone comes with a huge number of wonderful advantages, there are caveats as well. For example, you need to be very careful when deleting features, as if you accidentally delete something you actually needed, chances are that you will not be able to restore it.

Also, if you overclock (change your battery setting so that power is consumed more quickly and your machine works with more speed as well), you can cause your phone to overheat and possibly even damage the processor. It could also violate your carrier’s Terms of Service and thus void your warranty. You may also experience problems with media rentals. However, perhaps the biggest consideration and potential consequence lies in the possibility that rooting may actually be illegal and get you into trouble.

There has been a great deal of confusion as to whether or not rooting is legal, which makes sense because the policies on this have changed multiple times. In early 2011, it was made clear that although rooting an Android was very unlikely to land you in jail, it would not necessarily be without consequences. AT&T, the carrier of iPhones among others, made it clear that they could tell which of their customers are jailbreaking (jailbreaking an iPhone is equivalent to rooting an Android).

This company started contacting customers who were employing wireless tethering on their phones without making the standard monthly payments to the carrier. For the most part, these individuals owned iPhones and were using them as mobile hotspots. While this was and is not at all illegal in itself, this mobile Wi-Fi was to be accessed legally only through the carrier for a monthly fee.

Although AT&T’s policies generally did not apply to Android users, once users began tapping into the administrative capabilities of their phones, Android carriers generally followed in the footsteps of this company. After all, companies stood to lose too much when users were left to their own devices and allowed to pursue whatever third party apps or other options that they wanted.

Is It Safe to Root Phones

In general, even though the procedure of rooting was not in accordance with the rules, most carriers would not resort to drastic measures that involved legal action. Instead, they would most likely just add a charge on the bill of a person who they discovered was using his or her rooted phone as a free mobile hotspot. However, carriers were well within their rights to end the service of these users, since rooting a phone was considered to be a breach of contract. Thus, even though rooting phones was not illegal at this time per se, it may have been a smart decision to unroot phones, or to never root a phone in the first place.

In 2012, it was declared officially that it was not illegal to root phones. However, very recently, the strictest laws that have ever pertained to this matter were created. On January 27, 2013, the Librarian of Congress decreed the following in regards to unlocking phones: “In some situations, first time offenders may be fined up to $500,000, imprisoned for five years, or both. For repeat offenders, the maximum penalty increases to a fine of $1,000,000, imprisonment for up to ten years, or both.” So to answer the question posed in the title, yes.

Rooting your Android phone can now not only incur you extra charges, it can actually result in serious legal action. Although it is very rare for a person to actually be prosecuted for rooting a phone, it is now legally possible. It is not clear at this point whether or not this applies to rooting of any kind, but chances are that ultimately, it will. T-Mobile, as well as a few other carriers, have given the recommendation that users contact either their device manufacturers or the carrier directly, so that they can request the unlock codes for their phones.

Before the January 27 motion was passed, people could count on a level of basic protection if they wanted to unlock their mobile phones for whatever reason. However, if you bought your phone after January 26, unlocking it is in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

This applies whether or not the phone is under contract. The DMCA now forbids phone users from surpassing digital locks that control access to management of phone features. Though not likely, it is possible that legal punishment will be the result of breaking the new regulation.

Android Rooting Is Not Unlawful, Unless

There is no reason to panic, however. As long as you bought your Android before January 26, 2013, you will not get into trouble for rooting anytime soon. You are protected until 2015 at the very earliest. Even if you did buy your phone after this date, it is very unlikely that carriers are going to start actively looking for users who are rooting any time in the near future, let alone actually pursue action against those who do. Also, the DMCA decision is not necessarily final.

This particular regulation was originally intended to protect creative works; unlocking was frequently abused by electronics makers. The courts have argued the January 27 decision, saying that the DMCA does not have jurisdiction over digital locks that are not involved in creative work or potential piracy. Since wireless carriers are not concerned about piracy but about losing profit as their customers rely on them less, it may very well be decided that the DMCA has no authority over what people can and cannot do with their phones.

However, although it is unlikely that lawsuits are going to start taking place en masse, the possibility of a user who roots his or her phone getting in trouble still exists. It is fairly minimal at this point, but it is there. Most likely, the people who should be the most concerned are those who are involved in businesses that unlock and resell phones. Clearly, there will be penalties, in the form of large fines and/or jail time, if you are prosecuted and end up losing your case.

In the context of technology in general, you typically have access to administrative privileges on electronics that you have purchased. For example, you can customize a computer in pretty much any way that you want. Although you are always advised to proceed with caution when making changes to your system, you always had the full range of privileges when it came to your desktop or laptop. However, when it came to smartphones, it was a different story.

Rooting Android Phones Causes Carriers to Lose Money

Carriers of smartphones have made it more difficult to have full control of your machine. A major reason for this was that they could potentially lose business this way. For example, when you root your Android, you could potentially remove any evidence that Motorola is your carrier and take it to Samsung or one of Motorola’s other competitors. Also, when users root their phones, they are able to delete the apps that the carrier generally includes within the default setting of the phone.

Under standard settings, these apps cannot be removed, no matter how much space they take up or how much they can even slow down your phone. Despite the resources that these possibly unwanted features consume, they make the carriers a nice profit. As a result, these carriers do not want you to have the option to delete them.

There is also a large plethora of third party apps that you can download on a rooted phone; carriers do not like this, because if you are giving your phone capabilities from outside sources, they do not stand to gain from it.

Securing Android is Better

With the Android in particular, it is more feasible to actually secure your phone. Unlike iPhones or Blackberries, Androids are open source, which basically means that if they are rooted, you can easily secure them because their inner workings are relatively well understood.

Securing your phone is exactly as it sounds – it makes it much harder for others to be able to hack into your phone and any data stored on it. Securing your Android is much easier if you have already finished rooting. However, as companies were against rooting, this was not what the companies wanted people to do.

Also, the increased security that was possible on rooted phones would make it more difficult for the carrier companies to keep tabs on the phone usage of their customers. For all of the above reasons, carriers made it as tough as possible for people to bypass the locks on phones.

However, people got around the complications intrinsic to these phones. iPhone users figured out how to jailbreak their phones, and Android users figured out ways to root their phones. This knowledge spread rapidly until the majority of the population knew about rooting phones, if they were not rooting their own phones. Now, carriers have gotten their wish; the government has actually made it illegal for people to unlock access to their phone’s administrative capabilities.

Asking Permission May Be Unadvised

Although you can technically unlock your phone with the permission of your carrier, it is very unlikely that any carrier will grant you this access. After all, they stand to lose a significant amount of profit when you root your phone and gain access to free resources that they would prefer you be paying them for.

If they choose to do so, these carriers can easily track your phone usage and be able to tell whether you have rooted it or not. Thanks to the recent legal developments, they now have a right to pursue your actions to the full extent of the law.

In short, root your phone at your own risk. While chances are not great that you will have to deal with severe consequences, you need to consider if the advantages that come with a rooted phone are worth the small risk that you will have to deal with something that you really do not want. Though rooting and the world it opens up provides many advantages, recent developments have made it so that the decision of whether or not to root your phone is much more risky than it was even just one month ago.

Although it may seem unfair, you really may want to think twice about unlocking your Android. Of course, if you are able and willing to go about it through the legal route of obtaining a code from your carrier, there is no risk at all. However, generally this is only an option for people whose contracts are about to expire. Do some research and some serious thinking before you make a final decision as to whether or not to root your phone, as well as how to go about the process.

Ronald Smith

Ronald Smith is an Android fiend who loves to find ways to make them work better. He recommends One Click Root as a top authority on rooting Androids and often contributes on their behalf.

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  • IluvID

    Hey, the law of unlocking phones DOESN’T MEAN that rooting is illegal. Rooting and (carrier) unlocking is VERY DIFFERENT. In conclusion:
    Unlock Carrier = Illegal
    Unlock Android (Root) = 100% legal.
    What the DMCA means to be illegal is carrier unlock and NOT root.
    I’ve rooted my android, and I don’t worry at all about legal issue. And in my country, all GSM phones are unlocked (excapt iPhone).
    Rooting is safe (if you’ve backuped your data first)(unless you are a newcomer), great, and 100% legal.

  • FixUrArticle

    Thank you for correcting this guy, IIuvID! Unbelievable, that he didn’t check his sources regarding the DMCA, and also that he neglected to delineate between the terms “rooting” and “unlocking”. Ronald Smith confuses the subject more than helps. I was not very familiar with these terms when I found his article, and if I had just read his article and stopped, I would’ve went of half-cocked with bad info. Thankfully, I kept Googling, and found the real definitions and the real interpretation of this new ruling/exceptions by the Librarian of Congress!