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Friday, February 21, 2014

Rooting the Android Phone

I like to dabble with technology.  I've built the last several computers that I have owned, and managed to troubleshoot them and make repairs when things conked out.

I used Blackberry phones for several years, but recently decided that it was time to own a phone with a bigger display and more options.  A year or so ago, I bought a Droid Razr Maxx HD.  I chose that particular phone because it has a massive 3300 milliamp hour battery.  I wasn't keen on having to recharge a phone more often than once per day.  I have now had the phone for about a year, and found it to be pretty useful and also very robust.

I spend a lot of time reading techie websites like Ars Technica, and learned a little about "rooting" Android phones.  I never gave rooting my phone much thought (it seemed risky), but for one reason or another I recently decided to try it.  The idea I might turn my phone into an expensive paperweight didn't seem too awful now that it's a year old.  Turning the phone into a brick was definitely a possibility, because I am not any kind of hacker.

This past week I set out to root my phone, but it wasn't nearly as easy as I had been led to believe.  I had done a lot of reading about it, and watched several videos of people rooting their phones.  It all seemed very simple:  Download the exploit script, set up your phone to accept it, then run the script.  Rooting android phones requires using an exploit to trick the phone into thinking a developer is debugging it, then installing a different file for the phone to read when you re-start it.

There were three tools I tried to use, and they all failed.  All the videos I watched and all the information I read was valid for an older version of Android.  My wireless carrier recently updated the version of the Android Operating System that my phone uses.  This update locked the phone bootloader, which prevented the exploit from loading the file that would grant root access.

Finally after a lot of additional searching, I located an exploit that claimed to work on the Samsung Galaxy 3, and "should work" on all other droid devices.  I took a gamble and used that exploit, called "Saferoot", and three days of failure and stumbling around the internet finally paid off!  I managed to root the phone and get "Superuser access".

"Yeah whatever", you are probably thinking. 

Well there are some *very* cool things you can do when you have root access. 

Without rooting your phone, when you install an app, you either have to accept all the permissions that it requires, or do without the app.  Why would a simple flashlight app need access to my contacts list?

With root access, you can install Titanium Backup, which allows you to make a backup image of your phone, freeze apps, and most importantly, deny them permissions that you don't want them to have.

You can install Cyanogenmod, an open-source operating system that contains no bloatware apps and due to the transparency of open-source software, is free of spyware.

You can install AdFree, which mostly eliminates ads from showing up on your phone, by blocking data requests to known advertising hosts.  Interestingly Google removed this app from the Google Play Store a year ago.  It was probably getting between advertisers and a big pile of cash, and they weren't happy about that.  To install this app, you have to sideload it by downloading the .apk file onto your PC, and then installing it into your phone, then activating it from a file manager. 

You can install Permissions Denied, which, Like Titanium Backup, allows you (the owner of the phone) to restrict permissions that apps request.

The TOR browser app for android (known as Orbot) can also take advantage of root access, although it also works without it.  This allows a user to use the web anonymously.

Needless to say, rooting your phone is very much frowned upon by the government and also by your wireless carrier, which are both excellent reasons to do it!  Also, bear in mind that it is your phone, not theirs.  As with anything that belongs to you, you should feel free to do with it as you please.

On a less tech note, I have found a use for used toilet paper tubes, which helps make life a little less cluttered.  Lots of loose and frequently tangled-up USB and earbud cables now have a home.

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