Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The hacker who brought Apple and Sony to its knees

By David Kushner 

In the summer of 2007, Apple released the iPhone, in an exclusive partnership with A.T. & T. George Hotz, a seventeen-year-old from Glen Rock, New Jersey, was a T-Mobile subscriber. He wanted an iPhone, but he also wanted to make calls using his existing network, so he decided to hack the phone.

Every hack poses the same basic challenge: how to make something function in a way for which it wasn’t designed. In one respect, hacking is an act of hypnosis. As Hotz describes it, the secret is to figure out how to speak to the device, then persuade it to obey your wishes. After weeks of research with other hackers online, Hotz realized that, if he could make a chip inside the phone think it had been erased, it was “like talking to a baby, and it’s really easy to persuade a baby.” 

He used a Phillips-head eyeglass screwdriver to undo the two screws in the back of the phone. Then he slid a guitar pick around the tiny groove, and twisted free the shell with a snap. Eventually, he found his target: a square sliver of black plastic called a baseband processor, the chip that limited the carriers with which it could work. To get the baseband to listen to him, he had to override the commands it was getting from another part of the phone. He soldered a wire to the chip, held some voltage on it, and scrambled its code. The iPhone was now at his command. On his PC, he wrote a program that enabled the iPhone to work on any wireless carrier. 

The next morning, Hotz stood in his parents’ kitchen and hit “Record” on a video camera set up to face him. He had unruly curls and wispy chin stubble, and spoke with a Jersey accent. “Hi, everyone, I’m geohot,” he said, referring to his online handle, then whisked an iPhone from his pocket. “This is the world’s first unlocked iPhone.” 

Hotz’s YouTube video received nearly two million views and made him the most famous hacker in the world. The media loved the story of the teen-age Jersey geek who beat Apple. Hotz announced that he was auctioning off the unlocked phone. The winning bid, from the C.E.O. of Certicell, a cell-phone-refurbishing company, was a 2007 Nissan 350Z sports car and three new iPhones. Later, on CNBC, Erin Burnett asked Hotz if he thought that day’s uptick in Apple stock was due in part to his efforts. “More people want iPhones now if they can use them with any sort of provider,” he said, and added that he “would love to have a talk right now with Steve Jobs” about it.
“Man to man?” Burnett said.
“Man to man.”

Apple and A.T. & T. remained conspicuously silent. Unlocking a phone was legal, but it could enable piracy. Many hardware manufacturers sell the devices at a loss, recovering the costs through monthly contracts or software sales. When Steve Jobs was asked at a press conference about the unlocked iPhone, he smiled awkwardly and said, “This is a constant cat-and-mouse game that we play. . . . People will try to break in, and it’s our job to keep them from breaking in.” Hotz never heard directly from Jobs. 

Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, who hacked telephone systems early in his career, sent Hotz a congratulatory e-mail. “It was like a story out of a movie of someone who solves an incredible mystery,” Wozniak told me. “I understand the mind-set of a person who wants to do that, and I don’t think of people like that as criminals. In fact, I think that misbehavior is very strongly correlated with and responsible for creative thought.” 

Hotz continued to “jailbreak,” or unlock, subsequent versions of the iPhone until, two years later, he turned to his next target: one of the world’s biggest entertainment companies, Sony. He wanted to conquer the purportedly impenetrable PlayStation 3 gaming console, the latest version of Sony’s flagship system. “The PS3 has been on the market for over three years now, and it is yet to be hacked,” he blogged on December 26, 2009. “It’s time for that to change.” 

“My whole life is a hack,” Hotz told me one afternoon last June, in Palo Alto, California. He had moved there the previous month. He was now twenty-one, stocky, and scruffy. He wore a gray T-shirt under a gray hoodie, ripped bluejeans, and brown su├Ęde moccasins. “I don’t hack because of some ideology,” he said. “I hack because I’m bored.”

The word “hacker,” when it was applied to technology, initially meant college students and hobbyists, exploring machines. At worst, a hacker was a prankster. In the early nineteen-seventies, Wozniak, the hacker archetype, built a system that let him make free phone calls. Among others, he called the Vatican, pretending to be Henry Kissinger, and managed to get a bishop on the line. Over time, “hacker” acquired a more sinister meaning: someone who steals your credit cards, or crashes the electronic grid. Today, there are two main types of hackers, and only one is causing this kind of trouble. A “white hat” hacker—an anti-virus programmer, for instance, or someone employed in military cyberdefense—aims to make computers work better. It is the “black hat” hacker who sets out to attack, causing havoc or ripping people off. A recent series of attacks on Brazil’s largest banks, which took down their Web sites for a short time, is an example of the malicious black-hat type. The number of black-hat intrusions is rising: in the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security has reported a spike—fifty thousand between October and March, up ten thousand from the same period last year.

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