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modified on 24 July 2015 at 19:02 ••• 8,259 views

HowTo:Unlock

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Smartphones are a great convenience, but unfortunately can be a major stress on your budget and limit on your digital freedom. If you've been reading any news lately, you know that there's a lively national debate on what data our governments should be collecting and mining. There's an equally lively debate on what big companies should be doing with your data. Although it was obviously an abuse of authority for the NSA to force black boxes into all of our telecommunication datacenters, it turns out a large chunk of what we do electronically can be tracked with much less effort by anyone by grabbing public records from Facebook / Twitter / Flickr / Online Forum Posts. It should also be remembered that the source of all that data was not the NSA, but your telecom companies, and ultimately you.

Long story short, if you have a cell phone that is ON (even if it's not on a service plan), it's constantly communicating with a national GSM (or CDMA) network. At a minimum, this gives the network a constant readout of your location. Control over this network has been concentrated into the hands of 4 major companies:

  • Verizon (115 million subscribers)
  • AT&T wireless (107 million subscribers)
  • Sprint/Nextel (56 million subscribers)
  • T-Mobile (owned by the German Deutsche Telekom) (43 million subscribers)

There's no way to stop it, since those communications are required to send and receive calls and do things like show your signal strength. As it turns out, it's not difficult to snoop on these communications either. As an aside, you're much better off with GSM than CDMA, since GSM is an industry standard used in most other countries, and allows you much more freedom than CDMA to decide your network.[1]

Although you can't stop what goes over the air, you should be able to control what your phone is doing. Surprisingly, most people have very little control over that. Take the early battles over Apple customers trying to unlock their iPhones[2] or the countless folks who have to throw away their cell phones to switch carriers, or even the silly skirmishes over carriers locking functionality out of your phone that they don't want you to use. My old Sprint phone wouldn't let me download a free MP3 and use it as a ringtone, because there was a Sprint `store' for that!

Can your cell-phone carrier tell you what to do with your own device? Your carrier would like to think so, because it gives them total control over you. It's actually well-known that the communication chip in almost all smartphones will send location data to any network request they get[3][4], or, if it can, remotely activate the microphone and camera to listen-in on you. Wired's 2014 interview with Snowden revealed the juicy detail[5] "Snowden’s handlers repeatedly warned me that, even switched off, a cell phone can easily be turned into an NSA microphone." It's the un-reviewable, un-editable firmware, according to Richard Stallman, that make cellphones "Stalin's dream". Add to that the fact that you're paying (in most cases in excess of $40/moth) for this `service', and I don't understand why most `customers' are happy.

Luckily, there are some steps that you can take to get your freedom back. The first is to buy your own phone, like not from the 4 company stores above or in any version that comes with a service plan. Yes, there is an upfront cost, but it's not the $600 they scare everyone with. In fact, it can be much less than what you'll end up paying for the same phone if you buy it with a service plan. If you can tolerate their data-collecting agenda, Google directly sells some of the cheapest full-featured phones around[6]. The way it works is that they write some hardware specifications, and convince manufacturers to put the phones together and sell near cost. You can also find tons of them on Newegg under "unlocked phones", like the ZTE Nubia for $240. Make sure it's one that wasn't previously locked and takes a GSM card. Locked means the phone was made in collaboration with a service provider, and contains software to lock you out of the phone and keep you on their network (remember the Microsoft bundling that became the subject of anti-trust lawsuits?). Also, check that it runs Android and that it's supported if you intend to switch to Cyanogenmod or Replicant. There may yet be hope for the OpenMoko project, one of the few out there working to undo the damage done by proprietary communication hardware[7].

When it arrives, you will have a phone that is really like a small tablet computer and works without effort on your wireless network. How do you get it to make calls? Simple - you install a SIM card. Most carriers are more than happy to put you on their network, and will sell you a SIM card for around $9. Some will give the card away as a promotion. While you're looking, service providers will constantly try to fleece you with monthly plans. Whatever you do, stay away from them.

I was on T-Mobile's prepaid plan for a few years and only needed < 100 minutes per month. I got that for less than $10 per month by using a $100 prepaid card for each year. Web browsing, apps, email, navigation, and maps all worked great (and for free) on wifi. Sadly, T-Mobile takes your minutes away if you don't buy a card every year, so I started looking for a new carrier. Their customer service is even worse than Delta when they've lost your luggage (long story), so I'm leaving. No contract, no fees, no broken phone, no worries.

Enter Ting. Ting has to buy its bandwidth from the big carriers (mostly Sprint and T-Mobile), but understands the struggle, and ships their GSM card for $9 + $5 shipping. According to their FAQ, "SM devices purchased from Ting will come automatically unlocked. " [8]. Pop out T-Mobile, pop in Ting. Like any utility, they send a monthly bill with a $6 service fee, ~$4 in taxes, and usage fees at around 1.8 cents per Mb (1 minute is like 1 Mb). So, I get an upgrade that works out to around $16 per month - win/win. Republic Wireless may be a close contender, but requires you to buy a custom phone from them with firmware support for their implementation of WiFi hybrid calling.

Finally, there's that nagging software control issue. Since the core functionality of the phone is a GSM modem and a Wifi Card, and these things are only available as monolithic (black-box) chips with proprietary firmware and interfaces under NDA-s, there's really no getting around the issue. However, a good OS will isolate you from the vagaries of these devices, should you choose to turn them off. If worry about these parts of the code Google puts on the Nexus phones, the Replicant project is working to free everything they can and support better isolation [9]. They do not, however, try to support 3D graphics acceleration or the use of extra processors (Nexus IR mobile payment technology, etc.). Should you crave these things, you might look into Cyanogenmod, or even the near total isolation of the Neo900.