Jailbreak cage match: Windows 8 tablets vs. the Library of Congress

Jailbreak cage match: Windows 8 tablets vs. the Library of Congress

VANCOUVER -- A battle could be brewing between Microsoft and the Library of Congress over the right to jailbreak tablets that support the new Windows on ARM (WOA) architecture.

The showdown would be a replay of a similar case in 2010 when Apple opposed allowing jailbreaking iPhones but lost, making it legal to unlock the phones to install software not approved by Apple or to get the phones to work with carriers other than those authorized by Apple.

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In announcing Windows 8, Microsoft says that WOA PCs -- which include tablets and other devices powered by the power-crimping ARM processors -- "will be serviced only through Windows or Microsoft Update, and consumer apps will only come from the Windows Store. ... A WOA PC will feel like a consumer electronics device in terms of how it is used and managed."

That means no jailbreaking.

But the Electronic Frontier Foundation is asking the Library of Congress, specifically the U.S. Copyright Office, to exempt tablets from provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that forbid tampering with measures put in place to protect copyrighted works, according to Marcia Hoffman, an EFF attorney speaking at the CanSecWest security conference.

The law calls for a review every three years of exemptions to DMCA, which means that next year it has to decide whether to extend the exemption on unlocking iPhones as it did in 2010. This time, though, EFF is asking to specifically exempt tablets as well, Hoffman says. That's all tablets, not just WOA devices, and a separate request is being made for gaming consoles, she says, to allow customers to run homebrew games.

For its part, Microsoft says it is locking down WOA devices for security reasons. With the system closed to all but approved software and updated via Microsoft Update, the company can minimize the malicious code that gets onto the machines and quickly patch vulnerabilities as they pop up. The goal, it says, is to provide a responsive, reliable user experience.

Hoffman warned that even if the copyright office grants the waiver to unlock tablets, that doesn't mean owners of the devices can do whatever they want with the software. A restriction on the current jailbreak ruling on smartphones says that while it's OK to unlock the phones, it's not OK to distribute tools to do so. Violating that restriction can result in damages, fines and even jail, she says.

Hoffman gave the CanSecWest audience a string of legal tips about how to steer clear of legal troubles when conducting research into the security of software and electronic devices.

Copyright laws allow use of copyrighted software in some circumstances such as research or to use certain functions that the software supplies. It can't be used to create a competing product, she says.

She recommended that if copyrighted code is used that researchers use only that portion that is necessary for their purposes. It's also OK to copy software for the purpose of reverse engineering, but in all cases the software being copied must have been legally obtained.

In addition to copyright problems, researchers can run afoul of terms of use agreements that many users agree to with a click of the mouse without ever reading them. Read them, she says; read any other agreements referenced in the initial agreement and make sure you understand them. If they're not clear, ask a lawyer.

Researchers can also run into trouble with communications laws. For example, analyzing data traffic with sniffers can come under telecommunications laws that forbid eavesdropping without parties knowing about it. Federal laws say that at least one party on a connection must know the communication is being monitored, but some state laws require that all parties know.

The laws were written for wiretapping phone conversations, but courts have extended that to data communications, Hoffman says. She recommended getting permission to monitor or conduct such research in states where only one party has to know about the tap.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

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