On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission and the nation’s four largest wireless phone companies (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile) announced plans for the creation of a single nationwide database of all cell phones reported stolen in the U.S. by the end of 2013.
They were joined by the police chiefs of New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. to unveil the new PROTECTS initiative at a press event.
“In DC, New York and other major cities, roughly 40% of all robberies now involve cell phones — endangering both the physical safety of victims and the safety of the personal information on stolen devices,” said FCC Chairman Julian Genachowski in a prepared statement.
The new database would be used to deny service on any wireless network to devices reported stolen by their original owners. Under the proposed system, if a thief jacks your phone, swaps out the SIM card and wipes the phone clear of your settings, or performs other modifications in an effort to re-use the phone, they still won’t be able to use it as their own or resell it. That’s the aim of the new program, at least.
Here’s how it would work, according to sources at the FCC: Every cell phone, be it an iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone or even an older feature phone, contains a unique International Mobile Equipment Identity number, or IMEI number, a 15 to 17-digit-long string commonly found on the label beneath a phone’s battery pack. (For iPhones, the number can be found using the phone’s software itself, in the “About” settings.)
Wireless carriers already keep track of who owns each device using the IMEI number, but under the new program, if a phone is stolen, a user could report it lost or stolen to their wireless company (presumably using someone else’s phone) and then the IMEI number would be added to the database, which would function as a kind of national “blacklist.” All major carriers would agree not to provide any wireless network connectivity to those IMEI numbers added to the list, unless the original phone owner provides proof of their identity and asks for the phone to be re-activated.
Further, the government and carriers believe it will be difficult for thieves to attempt to alter the IMEI number, because altering it to another, different IMEI number could result in using one that’s already been registered to a separate device, which would set off the carrier’s red flags that the new IMEI number attempting to connect is actually a stolen device.
In an added bit of disincentive, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) on Tuedsay announced his intention to introduce legislation within the coming weeks to make it a felony to tamper with the IMEI number.
According to sources involved in the new initiative, the legislation, which doesn’t yet have a name, is similar in scope to current federal law that makes tampering with vehicle identification numbers (VIN) on automobiles a felony. Schumer’s anti-cell phone number tampering bill would also impose a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison for being caught tampering with a phone’s IMEI, according to sources.
So far, the program, while ambitious in its goals, remains short on some key details.
For example, the national database is expected within 18 months, according to the FCC’s release, but before that, the carriers will be rolling out their own, company specific databases, which should occur within the next 6 months.
But it’s unclear just who is in charge of coordinating the merging of the carrier databases into one effective national database. Sources close to the FCC and Congress said that it was a wireless industry-led effort and that the wireless companies would ultimately be in charge of designing and implementing it. But CTIA, the Wireless Association, did not respond TPM’s request for further answers on how the program would work.
As for measuring the success of the program itself, the FCC pointed out in its Tuesday release that: “The wireless industry will publish quarterly updates and submit them to the FCC on progress on these initiatives.”
But again, it’s unclear what action the FCC will take against companies found to be dropping the ball (or, dare we say it: signal) on this particular initiative.
Sources close to the FCC told TPM that the agency would be vigorous in checking up on the database and would not hesitate to use all of its available powers to make sure carriers are keeping up with their end of the bargain.
Still, no matter how you look at it, there’s clearly a need for improved cell phone security on some level: Lookout, a company that makes anti-theft mobile device tracking software, recently projected that lost and stolen phones could cost users in the U.S. alone a whopping $30 billion in 2012.