A company that unlocks cell phones in Europe said it is close to having an application that will allow customers to unlock their Apple iPhones so they can use SIM cards from carriers other than AT&T to activate the phones.
In an interview this week in New York, John McLaughlin, founder of Belfast, U.K.-based Uniquephones, said he has engineers working around the clock in several countries who are close to cracking the complex security system Apple has set up to ensure customers can only use iPhones with AT&T Wireless service.
The race by hackers to unlock iPhones has been on since the phone was released last Friday. Currently, AT&T Wireless has an exclusive deal with Apple to provide service for iPhones, and customers must agree to a two-year service plan with the company. However, customers have complained that the carrier's wireless service is slow, and according to McLaughlin, there has been tremendous interest in the ability to unlock the phone.
By Sunday night, he said, more than 150,000 inquires had come in through the Web site he set up to request IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) numbers from customer iPhones. While not everyone would volunteer their IMEI numbers, they still expressed interest in learning how to unlock their iPhones, McLaughlin said.
When the site was set up, he thought it would be an easy case of supplying unlock codes from AT&T to unlock iPhones. But sometime over the weekend after iPhones went on sale, unlock codes from AT&T for about 6,000 iPhones disappeared from the carrier's database, and McLaughlin's team also realized it would be a more complex matter than simply providing an unlock code to release iPhones from AT&T's grip.
There is at least a two-step process to unlocking an iPhone, McLaughlin said. His team has been able to unlock the activation process to the AT&T SIM card specific to an iPhone so another AT&T SIM card can work with the phone and be activated through iTunes. However, any attempt to change the firmware of an iPhone so it can support another carrier's SIM card breaks the phone, he said. The key to unlocking the phone is breaking the encryption process that protects the token sent through the iTunes activation process to an iPhone's firmware, McLaughlin believes.
Norwegian hacker Jon Lech Johansen, also known as "DVD John" because he cracked the DVD encryption scheme, claims he's been able to unlock the iPhone beyond the activation process that requires an AT&T account but said the device can't be used as a phone when that happens.
Even after an iPhone were unlocked, it still could only work on carrier networks that support the GSM network, which is what AT&T's service is based on. In the U.S., T-Mobile is the only major carrier on a GSM network. And there is no guarantee Apple will not lock down the phones again in a future firmware update through the iPhone synchronization process or create a new way to unlock the next wave of iPhones they put on the market.