After iPhone fame, it’s off to college for teen hacker

[28 August 2007]

By Martha McKay

The Record (Hackensack N.J.) (MCT)

HACKENSACK, N.J. - George Hotz’s unlocked iPhone isn’t ringing non-stop anymore with interview requests - and he finally got a decent night’s sleep.

But the last several days have been a whirlwind of TV and media appearances for the Glen Rock, N.J., teenager. Hotz rocked the tech world last week with claims to be the first person to unlock Apple’s iPhone, freeing it from exclusive use on AT&T’s network.

News of his achievement, which Hotz posted on his blog, catapulted the 17-year-old to international fame.

By late Friday afternoon, Hotz was telling his tale on CNBC, a reporter for The New York Times had called him and he had been interviewed for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

That was only the beginning. Over the weekend, he traded one of his two unlocked iPhones for a snazzy new Nissan 350Z sports car. Someone created a biographical entry for him on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. And Kevin Mitnick, one of the world’s most famous computer hackers, e-mailed him his phone number. (They spoke for half an hour, Hotz said.)

Hotz, who juggled media interviews as he headed north Saturday with his parents to freshmen orientation at Rochester Institute of Technology, was matter-of-fact about his rather lengthy 15 minutes of fame.

“It’s been fun,” Hotz said Monday as he shopped for a new computer router at a Rochester Best Buy with his parents.

“Things are settling down - and no lawyers have called,” joked his father, also George Hotz.

Neither have Apple or AT&T, the younger Hotz said.

The companies have kept mum on Hotz’s hack, which was hailed by online tech bloggers after Hotz posted the complicated 10 steps needed to modify the iPhone’s guts on his own blog. Hotz had help from a small group of hackers around the world who knew each other only by their online names.

Since Hotz’s solution was posted, at least two more groups have come forward to report iPhone hacks, including one that is strictly a software modification. Those methods have not been released publicly.

Hotz’s method requires both software changes and some fancy soldering work to change the phone’s hardware that might take as much as 12 hours, he estimates.

Hotz’s work was built in part on work done previously by other hackers. In the weeks following the iPhone’s splashy introduction in June, hackers around the world were racing to discover the smart phone’s internal design. Apple’s exclusive deal with AT&T to sell the iPhone in the United States posed an irresistible challenge for hackers seeking to “free” the phone so it could be used on other cell carriers’ networks. One prior solution used a modified SIM card (which contains cell phone number and account information) and some additional expensive equipment.

Hotz spent 500 hours working to modify the iPhone - including one step that requires gently scraping a minuscule piece of metal smaller than a pinhead and then soldering a wire to it with great precision.

The process is complicated enough that few experts believed a cottage industry would spring up as a result using Hotz’s method.

Hotz has said that he has no plans to turn his newfound skill into a business. In the United States, an unlocked iPhone can run only on T-Mobile’s network (Hotz wanted to unlock one in part because his parents subscribe to a T-Mobile family plan and Hotz wanted to use an iPhone).

He put one of his two unlocked phones on eBay but canceled the auction Saturday after fraudulent bidders pushed the price into the tens of millions. Hotz said he doubted those bids as soon as he saw them.

After canceling the bids, Hotz was contacted Saturday morning by Terry Daidone, founder of Kentucky-based Certicell, a supplier of used cell phones, who offered to trade a new Nissan and three 8GB iPhones for the iPhone. Hotz said he wants to give iPhones to the other members of his Web-based group, Dev Wiki, who helped him figure out the hack.

Hotz plans to fly to Kentucky at the end of the week to meet Daidone, then home to pick up the new car Saturday and drive back up to Rochester.

The electrical engineering whiz took apart a car which is still in pieces in his parents’ back yard. He said he would “probably not” take this one apart. He amended that quickly - “probably not right away; I’m going to be careful when I take this one apart.”

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