Stop, thief!

Sadly, I know quite a few people who have been mugged over the years. In some cases the people have been hurt, which is awful, but the upset caused by the sudden loss of property and the threat of violence is not to be under-estimated. I was actually with one person when it happened and that shook me badly.

A few days ago, someone I know was mugged. She was in a busy place, not wandering alone in the dark in a bad part of town. Her phone was grabbed. Fortunately, she was unhurt physically, but, naturally, very shaken and upset. Hearing about the incident got me thinking about why it is worthwhile to steal a phone …

So, what good is a stolen phone?

On the surface, a phone seems like a good thing to steal, as it is very portable. It should be easy to sell, as the latest models are in high demand. And they are valuable – a new iPhone, for example, would cost several hundred Dollars/Pounds/Euros. But it is not that simple.

In the very short term, the thief can make calls and access the Internet using the former owner’s account. But, as soon as the phone is reported as stolen to the service provider, this option goes away as the account will be immediately de-activated.

Putting in a new SIM card to link the phone to a new account would seem simple. However, the phone has a unique identifier which is reported when a phone initially connects to a network. If that identifier is logged as belonging to a stolen phone, connection will be refused. I am not sure whether someone smart enough can change a phone’s identity. Also, I wonder whether a phone could simply be exported to another country, as I find it hard to imagine that all the cellular network providers around the world co-operate at that level.

What use is a cellphone without a connection? Smart phones also include WiFi connectivity and I do not know how that might be blocked. So a stolen iPhone could be used, in effect, as an iPod Touch, which I suppose might make it worth stealing.

Is there anything that you can do to protect yourself? You can be just careful about where you use your phone, but that does does rather compromise the usefulness of such a device. You can install an app to track a stolen [or lost] phone, but that is only useful after the theft. What is really needed is a means to prevent the theft from occurring in the first place.

In my view, the manufacturers should do more to make stealing phones unattractive. After all, they have profited from the fact that phones are such desirable items. I cannot see any reason why a phone might not be designed so that, when reported stolen, it receives a message that completely trashes the phone, rendering it totally useless. Another possibility is to use an immobilizer like those used on cars. Have a tiny device [a “key”] that is carried/worn by the user, which can be wirelessly polled by the phone. The phone would be totally inoperable unless the key was in the same vicinity. The important thing is that, if the potential thief knew that a stolen phone would be useless, phone theft would become a thing of the past.

I would be interested in any ideas about how a “theft proof” phone might be designed by email or comment.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2011/12/15/stop-thief/