Verizon Begins Locking Down Its Phones Again, Purportedly To 'Stop Theft'

from the fool-me-once dept

If you’ve been around a while, you probably know that Verizon has an adversarial relationship with openness and competition. The company’s history is rife with attempts to stifle competing emerging technologies that challenged Verizon’s own business interests, from its early attempts to block GPS and tethering apps so users would have to subscribe to inferior and expensive Verizon services, to its attempts to block competing mobile payment services to force users (again) onto Verizon’s own, inferior products. And that’s before you get to Verizon’s attempts to kill net neutrality and keep the broadband industry uncompetitive.

In the earlier years, Verizon had a horrible tendency to lock down its devices to a crippling and comical degree. But with the rise of net neutrality, competition from carriers like T-Mobile, and open access conditions affixed to certain spectrum purchased by Verizon, the company slowly-but-surely loosened its iron grip on mobile devices. But let’s be clear: the company had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the new, more open future we all currently enjoy, where (by and large) you can install whatever apps you like on your device, and attach most mainstream devices (with some caveats) to Verizon’s network.

That’s why more than a few eyebrows were raised after Verizon gave CNET the early exclusive news (apparently in the hopes that they’d frame it generously, which they did) that the company will soon be locking down its smartphones as part of a purported effort to “combat theft.” Carriers have been justly criticized (and sued) for doing too little to prevent theft, in part because they profit on both sides of the equation — both when a customer comes crying to Verizon to buy a new phone, and when the user with the stolen phone heads to Verizon to re-activate it on a new line.

On its surface, Verizon’s plan doesn’t seem to have much of an initial impact on traditional users, who’ll still get to have their phone unlocked after an unspecified amount of time. The only initial problems that could arise involve users who buy a phone, then head overseas to insert a local SIM to get more reasonably-priced service. Those users may have to contact Verizon before that phone will work, something that may or may not be a pain in the ass in real-world practice.

But it’s more the precedent of the move that has people familiar with Verizon’s handiwork on this front a little nervous. Especially given Verizon’s recent successes in not only killing net neutrality, but gutting most state and federal oversight of ISPs entirely (something many haven’t keyed into yet). For one, locking down its devices technically violates the “Carterfone” open access rules affixed to the 700MHz spectrum used in Verizon’s network. Verizon was quick to insist to CNET that this shift back toward locking down devices does not violate the “spirit of the agreement”:

“The move marks a broad reversal of its policy to offer all of its phones unlocked — part of a deal with the Federal Communications Commission requiring it to unlock phones as part of its acquisition of the “C block” of 700 megahertz spectrum, which powers its 4G LTE network. One section of the deal specifically prohibits Verizon from configuring handsets to prevent them from working on other networks.

Avi Greengart, an analyst at Global Data, said the policy change appears to contradict the existing rules.

Verizon, however, argues it’s still following the intent of the rule.

“This change does not impact the spirit of that agreement as it is designed to deter theft by those who engage in identity theft or other fraud,” said a spokeswoman for Verizon. “It is not inconsistent with our obligations under the C Block.”

Oh, ok then. The problem is that Verizon doesn’t have very much (read: any) credibility on this front, something other news outlets were notably more blunt about:

“Verizon has peddled CNET the story that this is about preventing handset theft and fraud. No facts or figures are provided to back up that assertion.

The simple fact is this: Verizon believes it can get away with SIM-locking its handsets again. This creates confusion for consumers. “Can I take my Verizon phone to another network?” Goes from being answered with a simple “Yes” to “Well, probably, but first you need to contact customer service, ask for us to do this, give us your phone’s serial number, wait a week, and make sure this software update comes through.”

Again, Verizon’s pretty damn ambiguous about the hard specifics of this new plan, only stating the handset lock down will expand over time. Verizon (like many large telecom operators) has a long, proud history of hiding anti-competitive behavior behind faux-technical jargon and a breathless concern over the safety and security of the network. So locking down phones “for security reasons” is great cover for what could be ballooning efforts to make it harder for wireless consumers to switch to competitors. After all, who’s going to stop them, net neutrality opponent, former Verizon employee, and current FCC boss Ajit Pai?

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Comments on “Verizon Begins Locking Down Its Phones Again, Purportedly To 'Stop Theft'”

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34 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Unlocked

Good point, but I’d suggest seeing it the other way around: if there are significant numbers of unlocked phones available for purchase, does Verizon’s policy change of providing locked phones at this stage secure anything meaningful?

Given their claim, it’s on them to prove that this is the case, especially given their unlocking phones was a condition of an agreement. They have failed to do so.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Unlocked

So, you don’t think it’s a problem for the phone you get with your contract to be locked down to stop you easily getting away from that contract, because you can just pay hundreds of dollars to somebody else for another phone? I’d think about that again if I were you.

“Who is forced to use Verizon?”

People who can’t get decent coverage with other networks?

TRX (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You’re so cute when you look like that.

Where I live, you’re not going to get a useful signal from anyone other than Verizon.

Those “coverage maps” that all of the providers have, showing their areas of service? They’re optimistic. Well, actually they’re outright lies. If you don’t live in a town or along a major highway, you’re probably out of luck.

I have a Verizon phone so clients can get hold of me in emergencies. When I wouldn’t pay for the “data plan”, which cost twice as much as basic service, Verizon locked out the camera, mp3 player, video functions, and access to the SDcard out of spite.

Anonymous Coward says:

Spirit of the agreement

This change does not impact the spirit of that agreement

I’m on Verizon’s side until the part where users will actually be getting locked phones. If it’s locked in the warehouse, fine, but it needs to be unlocked before ownership is transferred to the customer. Not a few days later, and certainly not in any way that requires the customer to do anything (the agreement makes no exception for identity verification—don’t give it to them until you’ve got the money or checked their identity or whatever; or take the risk).

Anonymous Coward says:

Before T-mobile bought Metro, the way that Metro blocked tethering was trivially easy to circumvent

Metro used to block port 80 if you tried tethering your computer, but that was easy to circumvent. All I had to do was log in to a VPN, and I could get cirumvent that, easy peasy.

What Metro did was this, they would detect you were using Windows or Mac, and then block it. However, using a VPN encrypted the connection, where the fact that I was using Windows was not detected.

Doing this did not break any laws, as there is nothing in either the DMCA or CFAA that prohibited me from signing on to a VPN to circumvent the anti-tethering measures they had.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

there is nothing in either the DMCA or CFAA that prohibited me from signing on to a VPN to circumvent the anti-tethering measures they had.

You’d be exceeding your authorized access. Some courts have gone your way on this, but do you have the money to make that argument? And if the service’s lawyers were feeling aggressive, they might note that blocking port 80 would’ve prevented you from accessing copyrighted material (web pages) and you circumvented that.

This presumes you even have access to a court. Many companies are trying to force people into arbitration these days. Luckily, they can’t (yet) sentence you to prison.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It it were illegal, all would have had to do wipe hard disk and the reinstall Windows, eliminating any evidence of what I did.

When I ran an online radio station, and ran a message board on my website, I always wiped the disk if I found a message that might be deleted, if it might be a problem.

This is why SESTA will not work for example. If I found any spam that had questionable adult links, I would delete it, and they securely the empty space on the hard disk, using one mode of KillDisk that wuold make it unrecoverable. This is so I would not become a “test” case, like a few sites have been.

If SESTA passes, expect sales of secure wiping products to go through the roof, as web sites move to protect themselves from civil and criminal liability

No evidence = NO CASE

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Thats assuming they could figure out where I want to on the Internet. With a VPN, that connection was encrypted, so where I went could not be determined.

And since this VPN was in Cuernavaca, Mexico, the operators of that VPN were not subject to United States laws, in any way. The operators were only subject to Mexican law, and no other.

It is just like when I ran a VPN, when I had my station, so that people could bypass workplace or school filters, to tune in.

Since my server was in the USA, I was not subject to the laws any other country. While laws regarding bypassing workplace filters are stricter in Britain, my VPN was not subject to any British laws, since it was in the USA.

If Britain had outlawed VPNs, I could have continued to allow British subject use my VPN, and would have been not subject to prosecution in Britain, becuase my server was in in the USA, and, therefore, only subject to USA laws.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

However, the VPNs I used for that were not in the United States, and did not keep logs. Therefore, they would not have been able to determine what I did, since there would be no logs.

And since the VPN servers I used were not in the United States, and not owned by any Americans, they were not subject to the laws of the United States.

When I did this a few years ago, when had to move, and it took a while to get Internet service installed, I used a VPN that was run out of Cuernavaca, Mexico

Being in Mexico, the operators of that VPN were not subject any Americans laws. That VPN was only subject to Mexican laws. So I only had to follow Mexican law, when using that VPN. And they were subject to the jurisdiction of any court in the United States, being they were in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

The only thing that sucked about having to use that VPN until could get Internet installed is that I could not watch Netflix, as Mexican IP addresses were blocked, because Netflix did not serve Mexico at that time.

But I was at least able to use that VPN to pay my bills, and do other things I had to do.

Anonymous Coward says:

As far using SIM cards in foreign countries, if the travel bans on Cuba and North Korea are ever lifted, the laws of those countries require you to use a SIM from their countries.

You could unlock your phone yourself, without contacting verizon, and then just Verizon’s sim card back in and just wipe the phone to get rid of any evidence that you did unlock your phone to use Cuban or North Korean sim cards, while in either of those countries.

Wiping your phone to hide the fact that you did that does not break any laws in the United States, so Verizon will never know.

Wiping your phone, before entering any of the “five eyes” countries is a good idea anyway. When I go on road trips, I always wipe my phones before crossing the border into either the USA or Canada, so I don’t get into any trouble for anything I did not know was there. And wiping my phones before crossing through Customs does not break any US or Canadian laws when I to this

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“if the travel bans on Cuba and North Korea are ever lifted, the laws of those countries require you to use a SIM from their countries”

Really? I was in Cuba a few years back (the rest of the world can travel there quite happily), and I had to do no such thing and a friend who went there last year didn’t mention anything about her having to do it. Is this a recent development, or is the US spreading false propaganda again?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

My point was that you could hack and and unlock it, to use local SIM cards, in the country you are travelling in, and then just reset the phone to wipe any evidence of that before returning to the United States, so that when Customs records an image of what is on your phone, any evidence you used your phone on a foreign network will be gone.

Wiping your phone, before getting on the plane back to the United States does not break any laws. Wiping out any evidence that you illegally unlocked your phone, to use SIM cards in another country, does not break any laws in the Untied States.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“My point was that you could hack and and unlock it, to use local SIM cards, in the country you are travelling in”

If that was your point, then why did you make the specific claim that Cuban laws required you to use one of their SIM cards? You were either mistaken (which is not a problem to admit, though you avoid doing so), you lied and/or you swallowed some false propaganda which is laughably easy to disprove. Which was it?

Anonymous Coward says:

Allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Unscrupulous individuals hunt down people with decent credit that have fallen on hard times. They employ them to go to as many Verizon stores as they can and purchase unlocked phones and immediately trot off and sell them down the line without payment. Eventually, they are discovered by corporate and shut down but the damage is done. The poor store employee probably knows what is going on after the second or third time they have had to reimburse the company for the loss incurred, yet their hands are tied.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Be careful about what you’re saying, because you seem to be very confused.

“Is net neutrality a new and oppressive regulatory burden, hence its rise”

What the hell do you think net neutrality actually is? Because what you just said is nonsense.

Net neutrality is the principle of every packet being treated equally on the internet regardless of content or destination. Rules were put in place to protect this principle in the US. Now, they’ve been removed to please the ISP monopolies.

That’s it. If you think that it’s anything else, or that this site has been saying anything other than the fact that this principle should be protected, I don’t know what you’ve been reading. Karl was merely referring to the fact that once rules were put in place to protect net neutrality, Verizon were forced to compete and play fair for a short while.

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