Number's nearly up for phone thieves

TOM PULLAR-STRECKER AND SHANE COWLISHAW
Last updated 05:00 18/08/2012
Smartphone stolen?
RICHARD PARKER
ONE FOR ALL: A pact between telcos preventing stolen phones from working on any network, could soon be within reach.

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Stealing mobile phones could soon become pointless.

A pact preventing stolen mobiles from working on any network appears within reach after 2degrees revealed it was preparing to join Vodafone and Telecom in blocking their use.

All mobiles have a 15-digit international mobile equipment identity (IMEI) number that is transmitted to their carrier every time they are used to make a call.

Vodafone and Telecom use the numbers to stop their own customers' cellphones from making outgoing calls if they are reported stolen. But there is nothing to stop thieves inserting a Sim card from a different carrier and continuing to use them on another network.

Vodafone spokeswoman Michelle Baguley said that could change, with talks about implementing an industry-wide blocking system having taken place for some time. Carriers met this week and discussed making a public statement on their progress, she said.

"It would be a stretch to say an agreement is close [but] it is something we are aiming towards."

Charlene White, spokeswoman for 2degrees, said the firm was testing a phone-blocking system and expected to be able to offer it to customers shortly.

Ms White said 2degrees did not see any obstacles to an industry-wide solution but it was "still a little way off being available".

Ms Baguley said a likely outcome was that the three carriers would "manually" share the IMEIs of stolen phones.

They were a fair way away from creating a centralised database of stolen IMEIs, as was established in Britain in 2007, she said. The British system can disable a mobile on all networks within 48 hours of it being reported stolen.

Australian carriers have been sharing information on the IMEIs of stolen phones since 2003. The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association said the number of stolen mobiles dropped by a quarter between 2004 and 2011, to 127,750 in 2011, despite a 75 per cent rise in the total number of mobiles in circulation to 25 million.

Chief executive Chris Althaus said last year that those figures suggested thieves were getting the message that stealing mobiles was "a waste of time".

Ms Baguley said it was important people remembered to let their mobile company know if their phone was lost or stolen. An application, iTap, was available that let owners of Android smartphones check on the web what numbers the phones were dialling which could help retrieve them if they were stolen, she said.

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Telecom spokeswoman Jo Jalfon also suggested the app and said all mobile operators in New Zealand shared a common goal of preventing the reuse of stolen or lost phones on any New Zealand network.

Telecom continued to work with Vodafone and 2degrees towards that goal, she said.

Blocked smartphones can still be used by thieves as WiFi-only devices, used for parts, or sold overseas. Ms Baguley said it could not use IMEIs to track down stolen mobiles for privacy reasons.

TELCOS SAY PROPOSAL GOES TOO FAR

Telecommunications companies say they lack the technology to provide prison bosses with access to photos and other information from cellphones confiscated in jail.

Vodafone, Telecom and 2degrees joined together this week to speak to Parliament's law and order select committee, which is hearing submissions on the Corrections Amendment Bill.

Changes the bill would make to the existing law include granting the chief executive of the Corrections Department the power to order telecommunications companies to provide any information that has been sent or received by a seized phone as well as any information stored on the phone.

Vodafone public policy general manager Chris Abbott said all three companies wanted to help stop anti-social behaviour and had a good relationship with police about providing relevant information.

But the proposed amendment was so broad it left not only the telecommunications companies at risk but also the Corrections Department as the law change could lead to "unjustified intrusion" into a prisoner's right to privacy, he said.

Telecom fixed voice and mobile network resource manager Neal Richardson said the changes would involve a "major shift" for the firms as they would have to develop new technology to abide by the bill.

It was possible to over-ride the pin number on a SIM card but cracking the pass code on a phone to access information such as photos and web browsing history was much more difficult, he said.

Currently there were more than 1500 phone models in use on Telecom's network - with only 50 provided by the company itself - and it would take significant resources to develop the forensic skills to unlock them all.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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