New Smartphone Database To Help Combat Theft
April 10, 2012

New Smartphone Database To Help Combat Theft

John Neumann for

The four largest wireless carriers in the US are developing a plan with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to assemble a database of stolen mobile phones and tablets that have wireless capability in hopes of curbing their theft in the first place. The database is intended to prevent mobile devices on the list from activating voice or data service.

“New technologies create new risks,” said Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which negotiated the database proposal. “We wanted to find a way to reduce the value of stolen smartphones.”

The hope is that potential criminals will think twice about dealing in such devices by reducing the resale value of stolen devices. Verizon and Sprint currently block stolen phones from being reactivated, while AT&T and T-Mobile have not yet implemented such plans, writes Rolfe Winkler of the Wall Street Journal.

The agreement between the FCC and the wireless carriers is partly the result of pressure from frustrated police chiefs across the US and Canada. The Major Cities Chiefs Association published a resolution in February asking the FCC to require telecom companies to implement technology to disable stolen devices, reports Josh Ong for Apple Insider.

“It´s just too easy for a thief to steal a phone and sell it on the black market,” Mr. Genachowski said. “This program will make it a lot harder to do that. And the police departments we are working with tell us that it will significantly deter this kind of theft.”

“We are working toward an industry wide solution to address the complexity of blocking stolen devices from being activated on ours or another network with a new SIM card,” T-Mobile said in a statement. “This is not a simple problem to solve.”

The SIM-card problem will likely be solved by the carriers´ making an additional check to ensure that the devices themselves are authorized to work on the network, not just the SIM card.

The phones often contain sensitive personal data, writes Edward Wyatt for the New York Times, especially with so many smartphone owners using the devices for financial transactions. As part of the program, wireless carriers plan to educate consumers on how to remotely lock their phones, delete personal information and track a device´s whereabouts.

New York City reported more than 26,000 incidents of electronics theft in the first 10 months of 2011 with 81 percent involving mobile phones, according to an internal police-department document reported by the New York Daily News.

Victims of mobile device theft cannot only lose their device and personal data but often get hurt in the process, reports Mike Snider for USA Today.

In New York, robbers have pushed victims in front of subway trains and cars before snatching their smartphones, says Phil Pulaski, chief of detectives at the NYPD, which has been working with carriers since 2009 on the project. “It´s nasty business,” he says.

Washington, DC, cellphone-related robberies jumped 54 percent from 2007 to 2011 according to the Metropolitan Police Department.

Within 18 months, the FCC plans to help the companies merge their databases to create a national program that also prevents a phone from being altered to use another carrier´s network.

Tech-savvy thieves might be able to use software to alter the identity number on stolen devices. In the UK, altering such numbers without authorization is a crime. It is currently legal in the US, though members of Congress are expected to propose legislation to make it a crime, according to a person familiar with the matter at the FCC.

The databases aren´t perfect, said David Rogers, a mobile security expert at consulting firm Copper Horse Solutions in London.

Phones that are blocked from receiving voice service “still have lots of functions.” They can still connect to the internet via wifi, for instance, as well as play music or games.