The federal government, law enforcement and wireless carriers recently announced the creation of a new database that will attempt to make stolen smartphones unusable, and therefore less valuable.

The FCC, police chiefs and wireless carriers said the new database will record a unique identifying number for each device, similar to a car’s vehicle identification number. When a smartphone is stolen, the device’s owner will be able to call his or her wireless carrier, which in turn will block the device from being reactivated on any carrier’s network.

The system will roll out globally during the next 18 months through the use of common databases across carriers. Individual carriers are expected to have their own databases running within six months.

“Carriers with the push of a button will be able to take highly prized stolen instruments and turn them into worthless pieces of plastic,” New York City Police Chief Ray Kelly said, according to Bloomberg News, as the joint effort was announced April 10. “What we’re doing is drying up the market for stolen cellphones and other types of devices.”

But the planned system could have some surprising consequences, industry observers say.

Harry Sverdlove, CTO of security vendor Bit9, said that although government intervention on this issue is beneficial for consumers, it ultimately could be a bigger boon for phone carriers and manufacturers.

Since the database would block a device from reactivation, Sverdlove said, more smartphones would need to be purchased, thus increasing revenue for the manufacturers. “By preventing phones from being reused illegally, that’s good for [the manufacturers],” Sverdlove said. “It’s to their benefit.”

Theft Trends

Although crime rates continue to plummet in big cities, theft of mobile devices is rising sharply. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that in Washington, D.C., New York and other urban areas, 40 percent of robberies involve smartphone theft.

Officials hope the new database will dry up the black market and consequently reduce crime rates. But according to Wired, the new database may simply shift where crime occurs by requiring “that an indeterminate amount of personal information from cellphone owners would suddenly be in a new repository, possibly a ripe target for theft itself.”

Nevertheless, improving awareness about the rising issue of smartphone security should be addressed, Sverdlove said. The FCC and the nation’s major wireless carriers have agreed to do just that. AT&T posted a blog post on its official website stating that the company will launch a new website to help educate its customers on the prevention of smartphone theft. “We think the new website, which will be up and running in the next few weeks, will be a valuable tool for our customers, as well as for consumers in general,” the April 10 blog post said.

According to the FCC, smartphone makers “will notify and educate users in the most highly visible ways — through messages on the smartphone itself and through ‘Quick Start‘ user guides — about how to use passwords to deter theft and protect their data.” This will be augmented by public awareness campaigns about how users can remotely wipe smartphones of their data.

A byproduct of this smartphone ID system could be that it will take some of the pressure off of enterprise IT departments, wrote Dino Londis on InformationWeek’s Byte section. The growing popularity of bring your own device at work is putting the onus on consumers, not the enterprise, to secure and keep track of their devices. “Employees who use their smartphone for work need to take some of the proactive steps the IT department once took to ensure the replacement of a new phone,” Londis wrote.

As the popularity of smartphones has grown swiftly, some have criticized hardware manufacturers and wireless carriers in the U.S. for not doing enough to deter theft. In fact, Forbes reported that a class action suit was filed against AT&T on April 10, alleging that the company had not done enough to get back consumers’ stolen iPhones.

Anders Bylund of The Motley Fool wrote that Europe and Australia already have smartphone databases in place. Where deterrence measures do exist, thieves are losing interest, Bylund wrote.

“It's refreshing to see an industry coming together to do the right thing, especially when the safety of regular Americans is on the line,” Bylund wrote. “As smartphone sales continue to explode and saturate the mobile market over the coming years, this database is set to save thousands of Americans untold amounts of personal and financial grief.”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.