Technical Fix to a Social Problem

Why is it that when your cellphone is stolen, someone can just register it with a new account and start using it? In order to get service, you have to provide a service provider with the electronic serial number of the phone. So, they already have massive databases of valid serial numbers. Why not just have an something in the database record that records that the phone has been reported as stolen? That way, it can’t be reactivated, rendering it useless to steal? Technically speaking, it’s a pretty easy thing. But it would be a great thing for cell phone owners.

I’ve been wondering for years why this hasn’t been implemented. Some cell phone providers have done it, but to really work, the database would have to be shared by all of them. I just figured it was another case of American companies not playing well with others. For instance, while European nations set broad standards for phone protocols enabling early advances in cell deployment, feature development, and compatibility of handsets across service providers. In the US, companies have different standards (like CDMA, GSM/EDGE, UMTS/HSPA, etc.) for competitive advantage, but making life more difficult for consumers. Maybe it’s easy to register stolen cell phones just because companies don’t play well with others.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal and other news outlets announced the U.S. Government has brokered a deal for the major phone companies to create and maintain a database of stolen cell phones. There are quite a few variables involved, but it is likely that the database might very well help reduce cell phone theft by making them less valuable after stolen. In England, phone thefts have gone down 20% since implementing their database in 2004–despite the fact that the number of handsets in use has doubled. Impressive.

At Daring Fireball, John Gruber put it well: ‘‘Another non-ironic finally.

Sometimes there are technical solutions to social problems. And ones that don’t require invasion of privacy.

What I’m wondering is whether or not the cost for this system is passed on to consumers. It may not be the case with all cell providers, but I know that I pay for 911 service. So, this may end up costing consumers, although the overall reductions in crime likely make it a worthwhile prospect.

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