What Is Root on Android?

Michael Kwan
Android Mobile Phone Operating System On Samsung Smartphone; © Twindesign / Dreamstime.com

There are many ways that an end user can customize his or her experience on an Android smartphone, from loading unique live wallpapers to installing a variety of useful mobile applications. However, there are certain limitations to what is possible with an Android phone right out of the box. Some users may choose to root their Android phones as a means of gaining greater access to the Android operating system.

What Is Rooting?

The process of rooting an Android device has the end goal of granting the user what is known as 'root access' to the device. This allows the user to access and alter the root system files and sub-structure of the Android operating system that runs the device. In some ways, rooting an Android phone is a form of cell phone hacking and it draws some parallels to the jailbreaking process for Apple iPhones.

Another way to understand what it means to root an Android device is to compare it to how user accounts work on a Windows computer. While the standard Windows user is able to use the applications and programs on the computer, only administrator-level users have full access to change system settings or install certain programs that require a higher level of access to the root operating system files.

Android is based on Linux and a user needs certain administrative permissions to perform certain actions. Rooting provides those permissions.

Five Reasons Users Root Their Phones

1. Run Unauthorized Applications

A primary reason users choose to root their phones is to be able to install unauthorized applications. Although it is illegal, some users root their phones in order to install pirated apps and software. Others simply want to install applications that have not been authorized by the Google Play Store, some of which can't be installed on the phone unless it is rooted. However, several Android smartphones already allow the ability to "side-load" the app files (.apk) directly, even if the application was not originally offered through Google Play or the Amazon Appstore.

2. Remove Unwanted Applications

Wireless carriers and phone manufacturers may pre-install certain applications on a smartphone that cannot be removed by the user through the default settings. Rooting can allow users to remove these applications.

3. Install Custom ROMs

By gaining root access on an Android smartphone, the user can then install custom, special or unauthorized versions of the Android operating system called ROMs. These can replace the official updates provided by the carrier and manufacturer. For example, if updates on a smartphone stopped at Android 4.2 and the user wishes to install Android 4.4, he or she may need to root the phone in order to do that. Cyanogenmod is one of the most popular series of custom Android ROMs that are freely available on the Internet

4. Remove Software Skins

Related to the previous point, some users may choose to root their phones so that they can install a 'clean' or 'vanilla' version of Android that does not have the specialized customizations put in place by the manufacturers. Examples of these software skins include HTC's Sense UI and Samsung's TouchWiz UI.

5. Hardware Adjustments

Just as the PC community has overclocking to eke out additional performance out of their computers, smartphones can also have their processors overclocked and tweaked. Root access is required to make these kinds of unauthorized changes.

Three Risks of Rooting

1. Increased Risk of Malware

One of the reasons why restrictions are put in place by manufacturers and carriers in the first place is to protect the user against malicious viruses and other damaging software. By opening root access to the phone, a user may also leave the phone more vulnerable to root-level attacks by hackers and criminals.

2. Voids Warranty

Without reverting it back to a factory state, a rooted phone is typically not eligible for warranty repairs and services.

3. Risk of Irreversible Damage

The process of rooting an Android phone carries the significant risk of 'bricking' the device during the process itself. Should something go awry during rooting, the phone may be rendered inoperable forever. Even in cases where the phone is not completely compromised, it may still suffer from significant software problems, crashes and errors.

Is It Legal to Root an Android Device?

In the strictest sense, it is illegal to root an Android phone under United States law. This is due to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1999, which also protects digital publishers against copyright infringement. More specifically, the law discusses the "circumvention of copyright protection systems." In short, it states that the restrictions put in place by smartphone manufacturers and wireless carriers act as a form of digital rights management (DRM), similar to the protections in place with copyright MP3 songs.

However, the United States Copyright Office is currently granting an exemption to this law for phones. The exemption is in place through 2015, at which point it may or may not be reviewed, revised or renewed. It is important to note that this exemption applies only to Android phones and it only applies where the "circumvention is accomplished for the sole purpose of enabling interoperability of such [software] applications, when they have been lawfully obtained." The exemption does not apply for other purposes and it does not apply to Android tablets.

The legality of rooting Android devices varies from country to country. The ruling by the U.S. Copyright Office only applies within the United States.

How to Root an Android Phone

The exact instructions for rooting an Android phone varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, device to device. As such, users who are interested in rooting their Android phone will need to look up the specific steps and software needed to root their specific device. MEGATechNews published a three-part guide to rooting Android phones, which covers several devices from different companies.

Typically, specialized rooting software is needed. This is installed on a computer to which the Android phone is connected via a USB cable. The phone must also have USB debugging mode enabled and this can be found under the Developer Options section of the Settings menu. The rooting software can then be run.

The Constantly Changing Legal Climate

Just like jailbreaking an iPhone, rooting an Android device will continue to be a hotly debated topic and the legality of rooting a phone will remain in a state of flux until more precise laws are enacted. While the exemption to the DMCA is currently in place to make rooting temporarily legal, that may change and users are advised to proceed at their own extreme risk and precaution should they choose to root their Android phones.

What Is Root on Android?