"T-Mobile G2 with Google" Phone Contains Unexpected ‘Feature’ to Overwrite Users' Software

Blog Post
Oct. 5, 2010

Chip on Phone Overwrites User-Preferred Software -- Re-installs Original Firmware.

[October 13, 2010 UPDATE: OTI has released this follow-up analysis concerning the policy implications of mobile device lock down.]

Yesterday, some T-Mobile stores began selling its newest mobile device, the G2, an Android-based smart phone originally slated for an October 6 release while AT&T is slated to release it later in the year. This device truly is representative of the next generation of mobile devices. The hardware capabilities surpass the abilities of most available netbook computers, including the ability to play High Definition video seamlessly. Unfortunately, the G2 also comes with built-in hardware that restricts what software a device owner might wish to install.

Specifically, one of the microchips embedded into the G2 prevents device owners from making permanent changes that allow custom modifications to the the Android operating system. This is the same Android that purposefully opened up its source code under the Apache License, allowing anyone to use, modify, and redistribute the operating system code even if they choose not to contribute back to the development community. Even among other Android computing devices and phones, the G2 is touted as an open platform. Unfortunately, the hardware in this device completely undermines this license by allowing mobile network providers to override end-user changes to the source code. Wireless network operators have deployed a hardware rootkit that restricts modifications to a device owned by the user. This would be akin to a computer sold with Microsoft Windows containing chip that prevented users from installing Linux or another operating system of their choice.

Of course, the G2 is not really a phone. It is a mobile computer with an interface that connects to a mobile network. The majority of time many people spend using their G2 mobile computer is taking notes in meetings, reading and responding to email, editing documents, browsing web pages, getting news from their RSS feed readers, listening to audio files, watching YouTube videos, and interacting with online social networks. Occasionally, we may take a photo or maybe even a video, and sometimes users may respond to text messages or make a phone call. These are the same activities most people do with their home and office desktop and laptop computers.

Plugging a USB wireless modem into a laptop for T-Mobile’s broadband services does not mean that T-Mobile can say that Ubuntu Linux is not an approved operating system, or that Skype is not an allowed voice service. Yet when unsuspecting members of the public buy The "T-Mobile G2 with Google" phone at a T-Mobile store, they aren’t getting a customizable mobile computer or phone but are instead getting a device where the hardware itself dramatically limits users' right to make changes to their computers and install the operating system of their choice.

Clearly, the included software on T-Mobile's phone overrides a user's rights to run the legal software and applications of their choice. Instead, a microchip on the new T-Mobile Android phone acts just like a virus -- overwriting a user's preferred software and changing preferences and settings to change settings and software to conform to the desires of a third party. Users of the new "T-Mobile G2 with Google" phone should be warned that their device will overwrite their software modifications. We are seeking further clarification as to the legality of this software.

More info:

Editor's Update 2010-10-07 From T-Mobile
Code Level Modifications to the G2
Bellevue, Wash. — Oct. 7, 2010 As pioneers in Android-powered mobile devices, T-Mobile and HTC strive to support innovation. The T-Mobile G2 is a powerful and highly customizable Android-powered smartphone, which customers can personalize and make their own, from the look of their home screen to adding their favorite applications and more.

The HTC software implementation on the G2 stores some components in read-only memory as a security measure to prevent key operating system software from becoming corrupted and rendering the device inoperable. There is a small subset of highly technical users who may want to modify and re-engineer their devices at the code level, known as “rooting,” but a side effect of HTC’s security measure is that these modifications are temporary and cannot be saved to permanent memory. As a result the original code is restored.