Rooting is the process of unlocking or jailbreaking a device, such as a smartphone or tablet. It most commonly refers to android devices. A rooted device gives the user much more freedom to customize the device and achieve more administrative control. Phone carriers and hardware manufacturers often place limitations on these devices for security reasons. A rooted device allows a user to change the operating system (OS), replace or alter settings and system applications, install custom themes, and download specialized apps. Rooting an android device can cause a myriad of issues, including rendering the phone useless if it is done wrong, losing data, and allowing access for malware. Rooting a phone makes you a superuser, giving you admin privileges, but it can also void the warranty and cause damage to the device. While rooting a phone is currently legal, it is usually not recommended unless you have significant technical knowledge.
Root device explained
To root a device is to obtain superuser access on an android device. This is similar to jailbreaking an Apple device. When you purchase a smartphone, for example, the manufacturer and/or carrier place limitations on the device to help protect them from malware and from users unintentionally damaging the device. With a rooted android, you have complete control over the operating system and can make changes at an administrator level. Android devices use an open-source operating system based on Linux, adding a standard Linux function to give you superuser permissions.
Advantages of a root device
Rooting an android device gives you root access to it, meaning that you can customize the phone or tablet just how you want to, deleting unwanted software and installing specialized modifications. With a rooted android, you have complete control over the device and can work past the limitations placed by the phone carrier or manufacturer. Rooting an android allows you to install non-standard apps, which can help you to modify hidden settings, remove bloatware, and control storage. These are pros of a rooted device:
- Added performance
- Extended battery life
- Ability to download any app, even ones that are not supported by the manufacturer/carrier
- Option to fully customize themes and graphics
- Ability to make changes to operating system to improve functionality
Drawbacks to a rooted device
Rooting a device can give you more privileges and the ability to customize, but it can also signal disaster, especially for inexperienced users. Even a small misstep in the rooting process can cause significant, and often irreversible, issues. These are some of the major potential problems associated with a rooted phone:
- Security compromise: Rooting a phone disables the built-in security features and can leave you open to a malware attack. With administrative access, malware can do some real damage as it allows a much higher level of access. Security patches and updates are no longer automatically installed on a rooted device, leaving the user in charge of security on their own.
- Phone instability: If there are any mistakes made during the rooting process, you can essentially turn your expensive device into a paperweight. Certain code modifications can damage your software beyond repair.
- Voided warranty: In most cases, rooting a phone voids the warranty and will cause your carrier to refuse to service the device. It violates the service contract. Updates are no longer automatic, and it can be hard to keep up with technology.
- Unavailable services: Many streaming services and financial institutions will not allow a rooted device to access their apps or sites.
- Data loss: Rooting a device can often result in loss of data from the device.
Data loss & recovery after rooting
Data loss is common with rooting a device. If you do plan on rooting an android, be sure to back it up first. If you experience data loss from rooting, check to see if you have created a backup file somewhere. If not, you will need to download a specific data recovery tool or app. Steps to recover data are as follows:
- Download an app such as Disk Drill on your computer.
- Install the program on your computer and then connect your rooted device to the computer with a USB cable.
- Launch the program.
- Locate your device and click “recovery.”
Methods for rooting Android
The method for rooting a device depends on the specific device and often involves rooting through exploits. This means that you will exploit one or more of the security bugs that are already installed in the firmware of the device. Often, this will require use of a third-party app or tool. Certain manufacturers provide official support for rooting and unlocking the boatloader so that you do not have to exploit a vulnerability; however, this is limited to specific manufacturers and often to specific devices as well. Currently, Motorola, LG, and HTC, as well as the Google Nexus device, support a boatloader unlock tool or allow for rooting.
Reaction in the Industry
Initially, manufacturers and carriers of smartphones were against rooting your device as it bypasses many of the standard features and security protocols. Today, some manufacturers allow for and even support rooting and unlocking the boatloader for specific and approved devices. Still, as a whole, they still seem to be against the process and work to make it harder to root devices. For example, Samsung devised the Knox platform — a security service that prevents modification of system and boot files, and voids the warranty when attempted. Many of the reasons that people looked to root their device are no longer applicable, as new patches and upgrades are continuously offered. And rooting can often offer more hazard than benefit. Rooted phones are believed to pose a bigger security risk and therefore are often not encouraged.
Legality of Rooted Devices
It is completely legal in the United States to root a smartphone but not a tablet, according to the alteration to the 1988 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) made in 2012. The category of “tablet” was decided to be too broad and ill-defined to be included in the exemption, allowing smartphones to be altered and rooted. It is, however, legal to root any device that has manufacturer permission to do so, including tablets. It is important to understand the difference between rooting and “unlocking” as well. Unlocking a device means allowing a user to take it to a different carrier. This practice is also legal as long as your contract has been fulfilled.
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Disk Drill Data Recovery Software. (2021). CleverFiles.
How to Prevent Android Rooting. (August 2019). Samsung.
Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Cornell Law School.