FCC, Carriers To Fight Mobile Phone Theft

AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint will launch database to prevent reuse of stolen phones.

J. Nicholas Hoover, Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

April 10, 2012

3 Min Read

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The Federal Communications Commission, police departments, the wireless industry, and a U.S. senator joined forces Tuesday to announce a new effort, called the PROTECT Initiative, to fight the theft of smartphones and tablets, as well as data on those devices. The initiative will create a stolen-phone database to combat device theft.

The largest players in the wireless industry will come together to create a shared, centralized database to store stolen wireless devices' unique identifiers. People who have their phones stolen will report the theft to carriers, who, in turn, will enter the device identifiers into the database, preventing the phones from being reactivated. The shared database will be up and running within 18 months.

Phone theft is a significant problem, especially in cities. Cellphones are stolen in more than 40% of all robberies in New York City, and 38% of all robberies in Washington, D.C. These stats are similar to those in other large cities. Real data loss often follows, according to a recent study by cybersecurity company Symantec.

The FCC, which coordinated the effort with the wireless industry, said PROTECT should deter theft, since thieves will find it more difficult to resell stolen phones if they can never again be used. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski plans to meet quarterly with police chiefs in several large metropolitan areas to update them on the database implementation, but it's unclear what role law enforcement will actually play in the effort.

[ See Most Smartphones Lost At Night. ]

At this point, the database is entirely voluntary, and more than 90% of all mobile users will be covered by the effort. The FCC, however, will not rule out a policy mandating participation, if voluntary participation winds up not materializing, according to an FCC spokesman.

The carriers taking part in the PROTECT Initiative include AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Nex-Tech Wireless. The CTIA, a wireless industry association, has also been involved, as have a number of cellphone hardware and software companies.

Since the database will only include consumer-reported stolen phones, consumers who travel globally won't have to worry that this policy will make it harder for them to unlock their devices so that they aren't tied to a specific carrier.

Carriers also will be working with device manufacturers to encourage users to password-protect their phones, as well as support factory pre-installation of user-controlled, remote-wiping software on mobile devices. This should not affect companies who have policies about remotely wiping business-supplied phones that have been stolen or lost, but it may mean that a consumer's next phone is more likely to have remote wiping software pre-installed.

In addition to working with device manufacturers and the FCC, carriers will be creating an ad campaign for the effort. The government won't be doing any direct marketing or ads on its own, but FCC on Tuesday did release a short, online consumer guide with tips on cellphone safety.

This effort could also be supported by legislation. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., plans to introduce a bill criminalizing the evasion of a stolen phone database, such as by tampering with hardware identifiers.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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