New Jersey Teen Unlocks iPhone From AT&T Network; Opens Up Phone to Overseas Users

George Hotz
George Hotz

NEW YORK (AP) - The last summer before college is full of possibilities. George Hotz, a slight, curly haired teenager in Glen Rock, N.J., spent it taking on two of the largest corporations in the U.S. technology industry, and winning.

Along with a secretive group of online collaborators, the 17-year-old broke the restrictions that make Apple Inc.'s iPhone, arguably the hottest gadget of the year, work only on AT&T Inc.'s cellular network.

The feat took him 500 hours, or about 8 hours a day since the iPhone's June 29 launch. The equipment used included a soldering iron and a large supply of Red Bull energy drinks.

An AP reporter was able to verify that an iPhone Hotz brought to the AP's headquarters on Friday was unlocked. Hotz placed the reporter's T-Mobile SIM card, a small chip that identifies a phone to the network, in the phone. The phone then connected to T-Mobile's network and placed calls using the reporter's account.

Apart from AT&T, T-Mobile is the only major U.S. carrier that is compatible with the iPhone, even an unlocked one, but an unlocked phone would work with most overseas carriers.

"That's the big thing," said Hotz, who heads to college on Saturday.

Apple has said it plans to introduce the phone, which combines an innovative touch-screen interface with the media-playing abilities of the iPod, in Europe this year, but it hasn't set a date or identified carriers.

AT&T Inc. spokesman Mark Siegel and Apple spokeswoman Jennifer Bowcock said their companies had no comment. Hotz said the companies had not been in touch with him.

The hack is complicated and requires skill with both soldering and software. Missteps may result in the iPhone becoming useless, Hotz warned. It takes him about two hours to perform.

Since the details are public, it seems likely that a small industry may spring up to buy U.S. iPhones, unlock them and send them overseas.

"That's exactly, like, what I don't want," Hotz said. "I don't want people making money off this."

He said he wished he could make the instructions simpler, so users could modify the phones themselves.

"But that's the simplest I could make them," Hotz said.

Technology blog Engadget on Friday reported successfully unlocking an iPhone using a different method that required no tinkering with the hardware. The software was supplied by an anonymous group of hackers that apparently plans to charge for it.

The iPhone has already been made to work on overseas networks using a third method, which involves copying information from the Subscriber Identity Module, a small card with a chip that identifies a subscriber to the cell-phone network.

The SIM-chip method does not involve any soldering, but does require special equipment, and it doesn't unlock the phone - each new SIM chip has to be reprogrammed for use on a particular iPhone.

The hacks leave intact the iPhone's many functions, including a built-in camera and the ability to access Wi-Fi networks. The only thing that won't work is the "visual voicemail" feature, which lists voice messages as if they were incoming e-mail.

Since the details of Hotz' hack are public, Apple may be able to modify the iPhone production line to make new phones invulnerable, but there is apparently little legal recourse for the company. Last year, the Library of Congress specifically excluded cell-phone unlocking from coverage under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Among other things, the law has been used to prosecute people who modify game consoles to play a wider variety of games.

Apple shares rose $4.23, or 3.2 percent, to close at $135.30 on Friday. AT&T shares gained 26 cents, or 0.7 percent, to close at $40.36.

Hotz collaborated online with a large group of people to develop the unlocking process. Of a smaller group of core collaborators, two are in Russia.

"Then there are two guys who I think are somewhere U.S.-side," Hotz said. He knows them only by their online handles.

Hotz has put the unlocked iPhone up for sale on eBay, where the high bid was at $2.5 million late Friday. The model, with 4 gigabytes of memory, sells for $499 new. When the bidding was still around $8,000 on Friday afternoon, he talked about getting a car with the proceeds.

"Some of my friends think I wasted my summer but I think it was worth it," he told The Record of Bergen County, which reported Hotz's hack Friday.

Hotz plans to major in neuroscience - or "hacking the brain!" as he put it to the newspaper - at the Rochester Institute of Technology.