In a move that may mark the first time carriers were able to band together for a cause that didn’t involve more profits, cellular carriers and the FCC will be teaming up to create a database of stolen phones in an effort to thwart the explosion of stolen mobile devices in the US. While a definitive plan isn’t yet in place, the group has agreed upon a “broad outline” that will focus on more specific identifiers and serial numbers within the device to determine if it has recently been stolen. In New York City, 81 percent of all incidents of electronics theft during the first ten months of 2011 involved a mobile phone. That’s a lot of missing iPhones.
The database, which the wireless companies and FCC will build and maintain, will be designed to track phones that are reported as lost or stolen and deny them voice and data service. Already in action in the U.K., Germany, France, and Australia, the FCC and carrier database is an attempt to lower iPhone thefts by making it more difficult to service and re-activate a stolen phone. In the U.K. a similar program has reduced the number of thefts of mobile devices amidst a tremendous mobile explosion in the last couple of years.
Currently, companies such as AT&T and T-Mobile identify customers and handsets through the use of identifiers in removable SIM cards, making it extremely easy to steal a phone and then install a new SIM card on a stolen device. The FCC is hoping that the new program will eliminate that kind of easy target for petty thieves looking for a quick score.
While denying thieves access to data and voice services at the carrier level is a start, there’s no mention as to whether the handset manufacturers will be undertaking similar practices directly in their stores. What will stop a thief from heading to an Apple Store to get a handset replacement for a broken iPhone that was actually stolen? Will Apple continue to swap out devices to avoid a scene, or will they begin contacting law enforcement officials? Carriers and the FCC can do everything they want to address the problem, but until someone at an Apple Store notifies the police about a stolen device and the company stops switching out iPhones, we’re a little skeptical that the database is going to actually accomplish anything. AT&T, T-Mobile, and the rest of the wireless companies can lock the system down, but it won’t be easy taking a thief off of their network if they have a brand new phone within an hour of the crime.