As with many of us, my mobile phone has become less of a communications device and more like the right side of my brain.  Contacts with email addresses, appointments, files, and pics share space with dozens of apps that help me find the cheapest gas nearby, locate the nearest Thai restaurant, and let me know where a movie is playing and at what time.  It is my calendar, organizer, butler, and navigator.  Like many other gadgets, I wonder what I did before I had it.

If you and I really like what we have, then a bad guy would like it even more.  It’s more than just the hardware.  Unless you are pretty careful, quite a bit of personal information is kept on that device and that means lots of your money to a thief.  As a matter of fact, mobile devices are targeted in more than 40% of robberies in cities such as Washington D.C. and New York.

So what can be done when the bad guy is getting in touch with his inner dirt bag?  Major wireless carriers (including Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint) are teaming up with the FCC to create and maintain a nationwide (and eventually world-wide) database of stolen mobile devices.

The new system is referred to as the PROTECTS Initiative.  Once implemented, any subscriber can call the carrier to report the theft of his or her mobile phone and the device will be locked down.  The carrier will enter the identification number of the device in the database.  Should another carrier be contacted to activate the phone, it too will have access to the central database to determine if the unit has been stolen.  Should the database come back with a match, the new carrier will refuse activation.  Net result?  A high-tech, useless brick of plastic.

The law often falls behind in keeping up with technology.  However in this case, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is sponsoring legislation making it a felony to alter the Electronic Serial Number (ESN) of the device.  Similar legislation has been in place for Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) for years.

The PROTECTS Initiative has been embraced by CTIA, the international association for the wireless communications industry.  In its April 10, 2012 press release, CTIA identified four voluntary commitments that the association and its members pledge to adhere to:

  1. Implement databases to prevent reactivation of stolen smartphones.  The database is to be complete by October 31, 2013.
  2. Notify/educate consumers of/about features to secure/lock smartphones with passwords.
  3. Educate consumers about applications to remotely lock/locate/erase data from smartphones. (I personally use Lookout and it works great.)
  4. Educate consumers about smartphone theft, protections and preventative measures.  This will be done through PSAs, websites, and social media.

The entire press release can be viewed at http://www.ctia.org/media/press/body.cfm/prid/2170.

Wireless companies can insert information in monthly statements as well as send emails and text messages.  However, subscribers may ignore much of this information thinking it to be just so much more junk mail.  So if you are investigating a robbery and a mobile device is involved, keep this mind because the victim may still be clueless to what protection is out there.

Bruce Bremer, MBA is LET’s technology contributor. Bruce retired from the Submarine Service after 21 years of in-depth experience with complex electronic technology. Since then, he has been involved in fleet modernization and military research analysis. He teaches electronics and alternative energy at a Virginia college. Besides his MBA, Bruce earned a Bachelor of Science degree in computer networking. He has been volunteering in public safety for many years.

Learn more about this article here:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/la-fi-tn-stolen-cellphone-database-20120410,0,1585616.story

http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2402830,00.asp

http://idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/04/lookout-the-company-behind-the-national-stolen-cellphone-database.php