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Congress on Stolen Cell Phone & Violence While FCC and Industry Dither


The previous post deals with the Today Show exposé on stolen cell phones and the violence often associated with thefts of iPhones and other smart phones. It posited that the resale value of these units encourages thefts and that this resale value could be reduced significantly if the industry did not reregister for new service phones previously reported as stolen.This should not take an “act of Congress” to resolve!

Although FCC Chmn. Genachowski spoke about this issue at an international conference last month, there has been no visible progress by either FCC or industry on this issue. Indeed in CTIA’s response to the Today Show, the emphasis is on password protecting personal information - which helps with keeping your information private but does not remove the incentive for violent theft of your expensive phone.

Spectrum policy has generally been bipartisan in the past. However, the Republican partisan attack on LightSquared has opened a new era and in the instant issue the Dems may be retaliating. But partisanship in this area is probably a bad idea although in the present era it may be hard to avoid.

Yesterday, the website of the Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee had the following statement:

Today Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman, Communications and Technology Subcommittee Ranking Member Anna G. Eshoo, and senior Committee Member Edward J. Markey sent letters to nineteen carriers, handset manufacturers, and operating system developers seeking information on how they address cell phone theft.

According to numerous public safety officials, many local law enforcement officials are reporting a significant increase in crime, much of it connected to the theft of electronic devices. These incidents raise important questions about what role wireless providers, operating system developers, and handset manufacturers might play to combat cell phone theft and protect personal information stored on these devices.

In the letter, the members write: “we are writing to learn what policies your company uses to protect consumers. Even simple steps, like remote locking of stolen devices, could make a big difference in deterring theft.”

A recent study by Norton indicated that one in three individuals experience cell phone loss or theft, and a Symantec study of 50 Android phones in major cities found that more than 95% of people who found missing phones tried to access sensitive personal information.

The letters, given on the website with the above statement, include this discussion:

Cell phone theft not only impacts individuals, but also local law enforcement. Since the release of the iPhone 4 in June 2010, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) has had to respond to increased levels of cell phone theft. Last month NYPD added 240 additional transit officers to protect transit riders from cell phone theft. Similarly, the San Francisco Municipal Railway recently began a public awareness campaign to address the growing theft of electronic devices, after nearly 180 electronic devices were reported stolen in a 30 day period. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) began playing public service announcements last year in subway stations offering tips and advice on protecting cell phones and other hand-held devices from theft. In Washington D.C., robberies have increased by 30% since 20I I . D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier recently stated that the increase is due in part to robbers pursuing individuals carrying expensive electronics, which can be easily resold

But just as CTIA confuses loss of personal information easily protectable by passwords with violent theft of equipment, so does the proposed legislation. Bill sponsor Ellior Engel (D-NY) summarizes the bill as follows
  1. Create a national “negative file” or “blacklist” to be maintained by the wireless industry to record the individual ID number of a stolen device. Companies would then cross-reference the files with the other carriers to ensure that no device reported stolen could get service from another provider.
  2. Require wireless carriers to develop technology allowing the customer to remotely delete their data should the device be stolen.
  3. Require all devices manufactured in the U.S., or imported to the U.S., to have unique ID numbers. Most phones already do, but it is important to ensure that any duplicate ID numbers do not exist.
  4. Require customers victimized by theft to provide a police report with their claim.
  5. Provide the time for companies to enact the provisions of the bill so the system will be strong and functioning in a manner which does not disrupt the service to the consumer, or create any unforeseen technical issues.

The first item above is the big issue to prevent violence and could be implemented quickly without the need for the coordination with “Mexican service providers, Central American, South America, African, Chinese” that CTIA cites for an excuse for inaction.The 2nd and 3rd points really do need attention in international standards fora to get resolved. The industry and FCC have been unable to prioritize the issues and have focused on a global solution to all the problems while Americans with smart phones are subject to violence here in the USA.

The result of FCC and industry inaction is the pending legislation which is impractical in many ways. In any case, specific amendments to the Communications Act tend to stay unamended for decades after the original problem goes away and just create long term problems. Decisive quick action on the issue of discouraging thefts by denying reregistration will solve most of the problem, enhance public safety, and remove most of the need for new legislation.

When the dust settles, FCC and industry should ask themselves why this has taken so long to start protecting the public. As I have said before, good communications technology should enhance life, not threaten it.


I went to the Dale Hatfield Professorship benefit last night and was able to discuss this issue with several figures from the cellular industry. I heard that there is concern that the Today Show interview was “unfairly” edited. However, the responsive YouTube post from CTIA’s John Walls was clearly under CTIA’s complete control and seem to hopelessly confuse issues.

The CTIA response video was entitled “CTIA's Tips to Protect Yourself If Your Cellphone is Stolen” and the CTIA-provided description of it states:

“CTIA and the wireless industry are extremely concerned about our customers and their safety. To make sure you protect yourself in the event your cellphone is stolen, here are 2 tips that you can take now to render your mobile device useless.”

But the focus of the Today Show discussion was not the valid issue of protecting information if the phone is stolen, the focus was discouraging often violent thefts by lowering the resale value of stolen phones. One wonders if CTIA’s spokesman was really listening.

However, I did hear at the Hatfield event that there is a valid concern for multinational action because the industry has evidence that a significant fraction of the smart phones stolen in the US are promptly shipped to overseas markets where the value may be higher than the original US price. This is because it is common practice int he US for carriers to subsidize “retail” prices for smart phones in exchange for long contracts. Overseas markets generally sell such equipment at unsubsidized higher prices.

I also picked up an unsubstantiated rumor that Apple may be a culprit here as it appears to be going slowly in its role in standards to address the issue.

But this still doesn’t explain why US carriers are willing to resume service to a stolen cell phone/smartphone? International reciprocity, erasing data from stolen phones, and possibly “bricking” stolen phones will take a while to develop the necessary standards and protocols, but checking within the US on phones stolen from the US should not be a multiyear process and will have some impact on the black market value of stolen phones.

H.R. 4247, as presently written, is a poor way to address the various aspects of this problem. But FCC and industry inaction and the public posturing of industry is not very helpful either. A real and public plan of action will reassure the public, remove the need for legislation, and start on the path to decreasing this unintentional public safety problem resulting from smartphones.

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