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I recently saw a question on Stack Overflow relating to the iPhone Unlock Process. The guy wasn't asking for code at all, meerly asking what the process involved.

It was immediately slapped with a comment directing him to the FAQ (which after reading I still couldn't see why the asker was being directed there), and closed shortly thereafter as "Not a real question".

Since I asked this question, it has been suggested that the question was closed because the asker was asing whether he could ask a question, or because he may have been asking how to unlock his iPhone, where I assumed he was asking for the technical specifics of what happened. Both fair points, it may have been my mistake

As Brad has stated the question What does jailbreak do to the iPhone technically? received a very positive response.
Another relevant question suggested by Brad, but received a negative response: How do I make Background calls in Android?

Now I know some people out there want to be the Stack Overflow Police, and some people are scared of questions that slightly hint at subversive or underhand methods, or that the asker is trying to do something illegal (either for the sake of the site, or for maintaining their own halos).

However in my opinion it is perfectly acceptable to ask about processes and methods, even in the areas of reverse engineering and programming practicies that are invariably used to exploit other software. Questions like "How do I crack software X?" are obviously unacceptable.

I'd like to know what the community thinks about this; what is your opinion?

Is it ok to ask about shady practices, for educational purposes, as long as they are non-specific (in terms of cacking a certain piece of software, or asking for code to unlock iPhones, etc.)

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As Bill points out, the question you link to here was clearly not intended as a programming question. For a better example of a controversial technical question, I'd suggest How do I make Background calls in Android?, where they ask about how to implement an application to spy on their employees. While people point out that this is legal, it is not what I would call an ethical practice. However, there are interesting technical issues involved. –  Brad Larson Feb 24 '11 at 15:45
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@Popular Thanks for the links, strangely none of the ones about ethics came up as possibly related when I was writing this question. I've read through them all, but none seem directly related entirely, the closest being "Should there be an option to close for questions regarding illegal activity" –  Leigh Feb 25 '11 at 14:20

4 Answers 4

up vote 20 down vote accepted

...and some people are scared of questions that slightly hint at subversive or underhand methods, or that the asker is trying to do something illegal ...

My opinion is that it's okay to ask these questions. I'd personally rather have exploits out in the open where everyone can see them. If we bury our heads in the sand, we're just pretending the problem doesn't exist and we can't help defend against it.

That being said, the example you linked to

Can I ask for the iPhone unlock processing here.....No coding just process.....???

is not a real question. He's asking if he can ask about something. That's a Meta question at best. Better to just ask the question directly and see if it survives.

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As support for this, the similar question What does jailbreak do to the iPhone technically? fits well on the site and has had a good response, because it is focused and about the technical issues involved. –  Brad Larson Feb 24 '11 at 15:39
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Also the "No coding just process" part of the question clearly indicates that the user wasn't looking for anything related to development, but for us to provide a step-by-step guide to unlocking the phone. That's off topic for Stack Overflow. –  Brad Larson Feb 24 '11 at 15:42
    
@Brad Maybe I misinterpreted then, I thought it asking for a step-by-step overview of what happens internally. I don't actually know the process myself but I was anticipating something like 1) Get a user to visit web page, 2) web page puts shellcode into browser, 3) browser writes file out somewhere, 4) next boot the new file is read and blah blah blah. I think I'll adjust the question, but keep it on-topic, using the links from both yourself and Bill –  Leigh Feb 24 '11 at 16:07
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The fact that companies don't want people doing stuff with their products doesn't automatically mean it's illegal. I therefore vote to be very relaxed about this, unless it's about actual malicious code or links to sites that host such code. –  Pëkka Feb 24 '11 at 17:20

Over on Security.se we get a few which look a tad shady, what we have taken to doing is where the question refers directly to technical process we let it go, if it is on the line we try and guide the owner to reword, and where it is blatantly a request for an illegal hack we close with a comment as to why.

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iPhone jail breaking and all the tools that enable a user to do this aren't shady or illegal. In fact the US Copyright Office consider it perfectly legal and acceptable:

U.S. Declares iPhone Jailbreaking Legal, Over Apple’s Objections

But in the case of the question being discussed, I'd have probably voted to close because the OP just wanted "....No coding just process.....???" so I guess it's a moot point.

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I would propose the following process.

If a particular practice is shady, but still 100% legal, then it should be okay to talk about here. Unlocking an iPhone falls under that category.

If a process is clearly illegal, especially in the US, then it should not be discussed. This would include things like cracking DVD encryption, hacking servers, and other general purpose things.

I don't think any of us want this to turn into a hacking site, so in order to preserve order, I think this is the best way to go about doing things.

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Discussing cracking DVD encryption can lead to better encryption. The same goes for hacking servers. I'm certainly not going to let a targeted attack go unchecked, but I'm not against discussing these topics in general terms. –  Bill the Lizard Feb 24 '11 at 14:18
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"100% legal" and "clearly illegal" - where, when, for whom, under what circumstances and for what purpose? That's not even to mention USA's "XOR Is Hereby Unbreakable Act", aka DMCA. –  Piskvor Feb 24 '11 at 14:42
    
Understandable, the DMCA is a real bear, but it is unfortunately the law in the USA, and I'd really like to make sure that it doesn't attract the wrong crowd (Including enforcement folks) here. But, I think I'll agree with @Bill's comment. –  PearsonArtPhoto Feb 24 '11 at 15:53
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I think the problem is more on the ethical than on the legal side. Laws change from country to country and from one year to the next. Professional ethics (I hope) is much more stable and ... we are not lawyers. –  belisarius Feb 24 '11 at 15:54
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We're not lawyers, and we're not the FBI. I don't think we should be trying on our own to enforce US Federal law. I'd rather wait until we're told that something violates a specific law, and until we're presented with evidence that it does, or possibly even a court order. –  John Saunders Mar 13 '12 at 16:30
    
Why should we care so much if something is legal in US or not? US is only a single country, and it is known for bizarre rights (for example, arresting a programmer for writing a program to print PDFs). If something is generally considered illegal (not by single person, or single company, or single country) only then they should be not discussed. –  РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ Jun 27 '13 at 7:09

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