By Mark Long / CIO Today. Updated April 11, 2012.
The Federal Communications Commission is spearheading an effort to crack down on the theft of smartphones and tablets, which account for roughly 40 percent of all theft-related crimes in major metropolitan markets such as New York City and Washington, D.C.
Among other things, the new Protects Initiative will establish a national database that will enable wireless carriers and consumers to reduce the black market value of stolen devices by turning them off. Other elements of the new program include providing consumers with the requisite tools for locking a lost or stolen mobile device or remotely erasing personal data.
Through the CTIA wireless trade association, major mobile device makers and the major U.S. network operators have agreed to ensure that devices they sell include automatic prompts to make consumers aware that they need to set up passwords.
"We're sending a message to consumers that we've got your back, and a message to criminals that we're cracking down on the stolen phone and tablet resale market and making smartphone theft a crime that doesn't pay," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on Tuesday.
New Opportunities and Challenges
The CTIA said Tuesday that the major U.S. wireless networks using GSM mobile technology have agreed to initiate, implement and deploy database solutions using unique identifying numbers. "U.S. GSM providers will implement this database [by the end of October] so that stolen GSM smartphones will not work on any U.S. GSM network," the CTIA said in a statement.
The CTIA's wireless provider members have also agreed to educate consumers about smartphone security features as well as third-party apps for remotely locking or wiping data from a lost or stolen device. Additionally, the trade association's device manufacturer members have agreed to have a software mechanism in place by April, 2013 that will prompt new smartphone purchasers to establish a device password.
Meanwhile, all handsets and media tablets are currently equipped with a set of codes that tell the wireless network which tasks each mobile device is capable of performing. This unique set of codes is known as a mobile equipment identifier (MEID) or international mobile equipment identifier (IMEI).
The FCC is urging U.S. consumers to write down the make, model number and unique device identification number of the mobile products they purchase. This is the information they will need to report to the police in the event their device is ever lost or stolen.
International Cooperation Required
In the last couple of years, the U.S. has regained global leadership in mobile innovation, Genachowski observed. "With the steps we're announcing," he added, "the U.S. will also become a world leader in addressing the growing problem of mobile device theft."
However, the ultimate success of the Protects Initiative will depend in major part on international cooperation. Otherwise, vendors of smartphones and media tablets lost or stolen in the United States will be able to ship their black market goods to partners overseas.
Genachowski said he has already met with the international executives responsible for the GSM database system currently operating in the United Kingdom and other nations abroad.
"I am making it a priority of the FCC's International Bureau to work with other countries to advance this initiative," he said.
Still, Genachowski admitted that the technology will continue to change, creating new opportunities as well as new challenges.
"The FCC will establish regular, quarterly meeting with the police chiefs on this initiative and on any new issues that might arise," he said.