CTIA Joins FCC to Police Smartphone Theft

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and CTIA are joining forces with the police departments of major cities to foil the aftermarket for smartphones by rendering them (the phones, not the major cities) worthless when stolen.

The groups announced a four-step initiative Tuesday morning to stem smartphone crime, which New York Senator Charles Schumer says accounts for 42 percent of all robberies. The initiative so far has support from the big four wireless operators in the U.S., Verizon Wireless , AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) and T-Mobile US Inc. , as well as rural Kansas operator Nex-Tech Wireless .

The four steps include:
  • Wireless operators will create databases of unique smartphone identifying numbers, International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers, similar to what cars have, so that when a smartphone is reported stolen, it is identified and prevented from being activated on any compatible network. These will be created by the individual operator for GSM networks by October and merged to create one Long Term Evolution (LTE) database by November 2013
  • Handset makers will take steps to notify wireless customers of features to secure and lock their smartphones with passwords upon activation, as well as in their user guides
  • Wireless operators will provide education via email or text messages about applications that also lock, locate and erase data from smartphones
  • The wireless industry will launch an online educational campaign for consumers on how to prevent smartphone theft and safely use their devices

Why this matters
Smartphone robberies have grown to be a serious problem -- surpassing even Air Jordan mania, as outlined by a number of police chiefs and commissioners at Tuesday's press conference. As Schumer put it, smartphones -- at $600 a pop -- are catnip for criminals, which is even more dangerous considering the personal information stored on the phone.

"What we're announcing here today will make a stolen cell phone about as worthless an empty wallet," Schumer said of the initiative. But, as an audience member pointed out in the question-and-answer period, it does have its limitations. Namely, operator's databases of unique identifying numbers for phones won't interoperate at launch, so a thief may be able to alter the IMEI number or pop in a new SIM and try again elsewhere.

Right now, it is not illegal to do so, but legislation has been proposed to make it illegal to tamper with a phone's IMEI number. Christopher Guttman-McCabe, the CTIA's VP of regulatory affairs, also said the goal is to eventually link CDMA and GSM carrier databases, as well as link them with others internationally, so stolen phones can't be taken out of the country. But in the interest of getting a solution to market quickly, it will start out bifurcated between CDMA and GSM carriers.

For more

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile

mikael1978 12/5/2012 | 5:36:47 PM
re: CTIA Joins FCC to Police Smartphone Theft

I think making it illegal to "tamper with a phone's IMEI number" is targeting people who buy stolen phones, not people stealing them.

jdbower 12/5/2012 | 5:36:47 PM
re: CTIA Joins FCC to Police Smartphone Theft

"legislation has been proposed to make it illegal to tamper with a phone's IMEI number"


Wouldn't it be better to just make stealing stuff illegal?  Or do they think someone will say, "I just committed armed robbery and I'm OK with that, but tampering with the IMEI is just wrong so I won't do it."

opticalwatcher 12/5/2012 | 5:36:46 PM
re: CTIA Joins FCC to Police Smartphone Theft

There may be an alternative universe out there where all you have to do to stop theft is to make stealing illegal.

On this planet, you can make it unprofitable, by making stolen phones worth a lot less. No one is going to buy one if they know they'll be detected.

jdbower 12/5/2012 | 5:36:45 PM
re: CTIA Joins FCC to Police Smartphone Theft

Actually, the typical end user would probably just be stuck with a phone that doesn't work or would be blissfully unaware of why it does work.  This law is aimed at the "chop shops" who process the phones for sale.  But how is this not covered under existing laws?  It's the functional equivalent of swapping VINs on a stolen car.

The problem with tech-based laws is that they don't work for their intended purpose.  First, you need to update them with the technology.  What happens if 5G/6G uses something more advanced than IMEIs?  Would processing the stolen phones be legal then until they rewrite the law?

How do you account for test equipment?  You need something broad enough to cover illegal uses but have exceptions for the class of equipment and users that may have legitimate needs for IMEI swapping.

It hinders potential legitimate uses.  If they banned MAC cloning because it's a common way to intercept traffic destined for another user we wouldn't have a lot of failover mechanisms involving MAC takeover - luckily IMEIs are just one of the unique identifiers in a phone so hopefully one of the others will suffice for these potential new services but who knows where things will go in the future.

It also doesn't take into account intent.  I believe IMEIs are also used to enforce carrier policy so you can't enable a smartphone without a data plan.  Should the guy who's using IMEIs from two phones he legitimately owns so he doesn't have to pay for a data plan he doesn't need be punished the same way a thief who put people in danger is?

The IMEI database is great and long overdue in the US.  The idea of making sure that every step in the criminal path is covered is also good.  The concept of a lawyer being able to craft a law banning a specific technical procedure in enough detail to be enforceable but with enough open to not impact the industry is a scary thought.

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