VANCOUVER - A community of phone hackers wants to help you break through the virtual fences erected by manufacturers like Apple around their devices to restrict the software those devices can run.

It's a trend known as "jailbreaking" and it allows users to change a device's operating system to run a variety of software and open up new functions. It also currently sits in a legal grey area, fuelling questions about consumer freedom and copyright.

The jailbreaking phenomenon is nowhere more common than with Apple's iPhone, which is set for an update this week with the long-awaited iPhone 4S. Phone hackers say they're ready with their own jailbreak to go along with it.

"When someone tells you not to do something, you want to do it," says Gary Ng, who runs the blog and frequently jailbreaks his Apple devices.

"There is a huge community that really likes to customize their devices, to have the freedom to change and tinker and play around."

There are hacks available for several types of smartphones, including the iPhone and Google's Android operating system. Even the software on the Amazon Kindle has been modified to allow the E-book reader to handle different file formats.

It typically involves downloading free computer software, which then installs the hack onto the device. Last year, jailbreaking made headlines when a programmer set up a website called JailbreakMe, which allowed iPhone users to easily install the hack from their mobile browser.

Once broken, users can tweak the look of their phones and run apps that aren't approved by their phone manufacturer. In some cases, jailbreaking can also allow a user to unlock their phone for use on different mobile carriers.

Jailbreaking has resulted in somewhat of an arms race between manufacturers and hackers, with the jailbreaking community discovering a new way to reprogram a device and smartphone manufacturers scrambling to fix the hole.

In some cases, phone makers adopt some of those jailbroken tweaks. For example, the notification centre on Apple's new iPhone operating system is eerily similar to apps that have been available on jailbroken phones for some time. And the hacker behind the JailbreakMe website was recently hired as an Apple intern.

"It's pretty amazing, the work of these hackers, for them to be able to discover exploits, (because) Apple supposedly has some of the smartest people on the planet working for them -- it's impressive," said Ng.

Smartphone makers insist jailbreaking is dangerous. They say it can damage phones, hurt a device's performance, expose users to viruses or other malicious attacks, and void their warranties. Critics also point to the dark side of jailbreaking, which makes it easier to install pirated apps.

As for the law, currently there isn't any legislation in Canada regarding either jailbreaking or unlocking, says Prof. Michael Geist, who holds the Canada research chair in Internet law at the University of Ottawa.

But Geist says it's still not clear how forthcoming changes to Canada's copyright laws, which will make it illegal to break digital locks, will apply. The proposed legislation contains an exemption for unlocking phones to use them on different mobile carriers, but Geist says it doesn't specifically deal with jailbreaking -- one way or the other.

"It could affect things," says Geist.

"There is an exception for unlocking of a cellphone, so the issue of a Canadian who wants to move between carriers and unlock their device, they might have faced an issue with the digital lock rules in the bill, but there now is a specific exception for that. But there isn't a clear-cut exception for jailbreaking."

Geist says as phone unlocking and jailbreaking become more common, Canadians should be concerned with any law that might affect what they can do with their devices. And he says the fact that jailbreaking and unlocking need to be included in the debate over new copyright laws reveals problems with the law itself.

"On the jailbreaking side, (prohibiting) jailbreaking is effectively akin to telling someone who bought a personal computer that Dell or Apple decides what programs you can run," he says.

"Unlocking or jailbreaking a phone really has nothing to do with copyright. And to get to these laws that have us talking about unlocking a cellphone just shows how far removed some of these provisions are from copyright."

Technology analyst Carmi Levy says while jailbreaking is becoming more common, it is still something reserved for advanced users who have the technical know-how to troubleshoot and understand the risks, especially since doing so can void a device's warranty.

"That's the risk you run any time you violate the terms of use for your phone, you do so with the understanding that you will be on your own if anything unexpected happens," says Levy.

"By the same token, those who would jailbreak an iPhone are usually the ones who can self support anyway. My mother is probably not going to jailbreak her phone, but my programmer friends would."