Mobile phone operators and handset makers are working together in an international campaign to decrease mobile phone theft.
The initiative aims to allow operators to track stolen handsets and render them useless, even if the handsets are taken abroad. The effort is being led by the GSM Association, a global body representing the 600 Global System for Mobile Communications operators, with participation from companies such as Vodafone Group, Orange and T-Mobile.
The association has already put together the first part of the initiative by establishing a database where more than 25 global operators had agreed to record the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers of stolen handsets, a GSM Association spokesperson said.
It is similar to a campaign, Immobilise, undertaken by UK operators last year, in which they track the IMEI numbers of stolen phones in a central database and block calls to those handsets across all national networks.
Operators admit, however, that it is relatively easy for thieves to reprogram the phones and use them despite their blocking efforts.
Under the new campaign, however, operators and handset makers were looking into ways to prevent the reprogramming of phones, the GSM spokesman said.
IMEI numbers were not originally intended to be security measures, only to identify devices, and manufacturers have been working for some time to improve their security, said Jeff Suff, chairman of the industry policy group representing handset makers at the European Industry Association for Information Systems, Communication Technologies and Consumer Electronics (EICTA).
"This is an ongoing process and [handset makers] will continue to spend time and money on it," he said.
A U.K representative for Orange said that the mobile operator was participating in the initiative but had no details on how close the group was to preventing handset reprogramming.
Likewise, a representative for Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications said that the company was working with other industry groups to eradicate mobile phone theft, but could not say what the final technological solutions would be.
Mobile phone theft has become a growing problem worldwide, with hundreds of thousands of phones reported stolen each year. In the UK, for instance, mobile phone theft now accounts for almost half of the reported theft on the London Underground, according to police.
While working to prevent theft was clearly in the interest of operators who wanted happy customers, they also must ensure that measures were in place to unblock the phones if there was an error or the phone was recovered by its owner, IDC analyst, Paolo Pescatore, said.
There were a number of safeguards the operators and handset makers could put in place, such as software that told customers when they reached calling limits, serial numbers on handsets and subscriber identity module (SIM) card locking, Pescatore said. But it was important that the providers adopted the measures as a group.
The GSM Association also said that it was working with various governments to make the reprogramming of handsets illegal. It was already outlawed in the UK.
"It's part of an armoury of tools to prevent mobile phone theft," the GSM spokesperson said.
More details of the campaign are expected to be revealed at the 3GSM Global Congress in Cannes, France, later this month.