Wireless Competitors Are Banding Together to Reduce Cellphone Thefts

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Pavel Ignatov

Cellphone theft may not be the most egregious of crimes, but it's one of the most personal. When someone steals your phone, that person is also stealing the intimate segments of yourself that are housed within that device: your communications, your memories, your path around the world. 

So it's particularly troubling that, in major cities around the U.S., electronics are now the most stolen type of property -- more frequently stolen, even, than cash. In New York, over the first 10 months of 2011, there were 26,000 incidents of electronics theft -- and 81% of those involved mobile phones. In Washington, D.C., cellphone-related robberies rose 54% between 2007 and 2011. As cellphones -- and, particularly, smartphones -- increase, it'd be logical to assume that incidents of their thefts will rise, as well. 

Ugh. 

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To fight the trends, the U.S. government is teaming up with the country's four major wireless providers -- Verizon, Sprint Nextel, AT&T, and T-Mobile -- to create a centralized database of stolen cellphones. The database, the Wall Street Journal reports, will track phones that are reported as lost or stolen according to their serial numbers, and will then deny those phones access to the providers' voice and data networks. While, currently, a used iPhone can get hundreds of dollars on the street or on sites like eBay and Craigslist, the idea behind the database is to remove the incentives for cellphone theft by rendering the devices difficult (and, the hope goes, impossible) to use after they're lifted. 

The idea is also to enforce a sharp division between cellphones as hardware and cellphones as conduits of information. Phones are valuable -- both to users and to would-be thieves -- not only as sophisticated machines, but also as repositories of tons of valuable personal data: the intimate stuff, the emails and text messages and photos, but also the more generally valuable stuff like banking information and online-purchasing passwords. Which makes phones' theft a crime of insult and injury at once. So the new initiative will include, in addition to the networks' serial-number databases, a program intended to educate consumers on mobile privacy, teaching them how to remotely lock their phones, delete personal information, and track their devices' location.

The project will be a pretty massive undertaking, requiring steady collaboration between competing wireless networks and the government that regulates them. (Carriers will roll out their own individual databases within six months, and then integrate those individual products into one mega-database in the 12 months thereafter.) And the project is a response, in fact, to the frustrations of a third group: local law enforcement. In February, a collective of 70 police chiefs from large cities across the U.S. and Canada published a resolution asking the FCC to require telecom companies to implement technology to disable stolen devices. Today's announcement is the culmination of that request. 

The details of the database have yet to be worked out -- what we have now is an agreement among the carriers and a "broad outline" for future action -- but there could also be, it's worth noting, significant civil liberties concerns associated with the tracking system. The chief selling point of the mega-database -- its mega-ness -- could, viewed another way, also be its chief drawback. 

Then again, collaborative stolen-phone databases like this one have already been implemented in Australia, France, Germany, and the U.K.; and, over the ten years or so that they've been around, the number of thefts has drastically declined (if not wholly disappeared). And the U.S.'s effort at databased crime-fighting may also have help from a more traditional ally: the law. Senator Charles Schumer, for one, plans on introducing legislation that would specifically criminalize tampering with a phone's unique serial number. "Our goal," he explains, "is to make a stolen cellphone as worthless as an empty wallet."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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