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Any answers to mobile phone crime?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:52 UK time, Thursday, 11 February 2010

I've visited a number of places to discuss the latest innovations in the mobile phone industry, from Helsinki to California to Barcelona, but I never expected to make my way through the many layers of security into the Home Office to be shown some cutting edge technology.

Man having phone stolen from his pocketI'd been invited to see the winning designs in a contest run by the Home Office and the Design Council. Three innovations aimed at making mobile phones less attractive to thieves - or useless if they are stolen - were on show.

The first was i-migo, a small device which you keep in your pocket and which sets off an alarm if your handset goes beyond a pre-set range. This sounds like it would be helpful to those of us who lose phones down the back of a sofa as well as protecting against theft.

The second, TouchSafe, is aimed at a future where our mobile phones will in effect become credit cards - a prospect that always seems just around the corner. This is a security card carried by a user who wants to make so called m-commerce transactions - you discreetly touch the phone against the card, much like using the Oyster travel card on London's transport system, and your purchase is authorised. I just wonder whether having to carry yet another card rather defeats the object of turning the mobile into an all-purpose payment device.

And finally there was Tie, a software solution which matches a handset to a SIM card and protects the data on the phone. This means that, if the phone is stolen, the criminal cannot insert a new SIM or mine your handset for data such as bank passwords. Clever - but just how many consumers will want to be bothered with something that only becomes useful after their phone is stolen?

Which brings us to the question of whose responsibility it is to fight mobile phone crime. When I spoke to the Minister for Crime Prevention, Alan Campbell, he wanted the mobile phone industry to play a bigger part. He cited the example of the car industry which apparently came up with a raft of innovations to help cut thefts by 60% over a decade - after a little light government persuasion involving threats to publish data on the most stealable cars.

And how big is the problem right now? Not that bad for the average mobile user according to the British Crime Survey, with around 2% reporting a theft in recent years - but much worse for young people, with nearly half of all victims of phone theft aged between 10 and 24. The government is concerned that the arrival of much smarter phones, containing valuable data and possibly mobile money capabilities, will lead to a spike in theft.

So it looks like mobile operators and handset makers can expect some arm-twisting to do more. But according to the government and to the Design Council, there's another motive for mobile firms to come up with innovative security ideas: "You've got an amazing opportunity," the Design Council boss David Kester told me. "Just a little bit of a nudge from the government and you see there is innovation out there, there are real ideas that can make money for British industry. Suddenly a problem that we the public all care about becomes an opportunity."

The ideas that I saw at the Home Office will be on display in Barcelona next week at the Mobile World Congress, the industry's biggest annual shindig. So then we might see whether there really is a market for making mobiles less thievable.


  • Comment number 1.

    I like the theory of that Tie software, although if you could work it so you can have 2 of more Sims autorised to 'dock' with the phone, in case your one of those people whom has 2 sims cards but only one phone.

    Didn't someone come up with a phone with an inbuilt finger-print reader, so to be able to use the phone you had to confirm your finger-prints?

  • Comment number 2.

    Given the amount of ineffective security theatre the Home Office goes for, the question you've got to ask about something like Tie is whether it actually works or not.

    It's a general principle of IT security that if an attacker has physical access to a device, then they control it. How is a pure software 'solution' going to survive a phone being reflashed?

  • Comment number 3.

    While the ideas are good but isn't there already antitheft software in the market to prevent loss or stolen like phonebak like an extension to Tie software but wipe out the data and know who is the thief?

    It is a great idea to prevent theft of phones my take is always be aware of whatever information is stored in it. Nothing will help if owner is not careful.

  • Comment number 4.


    I am surprised that you have not commented on the features that are already available on the GPS enabled iPhones when they are linked to a account with Apple. This allows the phone to be located via GPS and it's position shown on the website, you can display messages on the phone screen and make it beep even when it's on silent, and remote wipe all the information on the phone.

  • Comment number 5.

    I've a good solution to most crimes, not just mobile - PREVENTION.

    It's quite simple, stop flashing around your new gadget and perhaps it won't be targetted. Common sense says to keep these expensive toys away from places that can be pick-pocketted easily (ie inside jacket or zip up pockets).

    Don't expect someone else to protect you from your own stupidity.

  • Comment number 6.

    The mobile phone market absolutely depends on us replacing our devices well before they are at the end of their useful life. Making them less steal-able removes one driver for handset turnover and so I think a big stick will be required.

  • Comment number 7.

    badger_fruit write > "It's quite simple, stop flashing around your new gadget and perhaps it won't be targetted. "

    Easier said then done i am afraid.

    If you consider that most mobile thefts happen when someone is on the phone, or they are pick pocketed, not long after putting the phone back in their pocket then i don't consider that "flashing around" as when the phone rings, it needs answering.

    However, the little so and so's that play their music through their mobile on on the bus / tram / train etc deserve it to get stolen for being so inconsiderate.

    Back on topic, the answer is painfully simple; put a finger print reader on phones. Swipe your finger on the phone and it becomes unlocked and functionable.

    If they ensure that the details are encrypted to a high degree and while the finger security is in place the sim is tied to that phone then the phone if it gets stolen would be useless as it's tied to a fingerprint and also the simcard.

    It also saves the hassle of tying it into the sim card in the event that if your like me and change your mobile number every year, you don't have to change the phone as well.

  • Comment number 8.

    "Not that bad for the average mobile user according to the British Crime Survey, with around 2% reporting a theft in recent years"

    This doesn't suprise me, last time I was in a police station there was a big sign up saying they wouldn't give out crime numbers (and therefore record it) for mobile phone thefts unless violence was involved.

    If the police don't treat it as a crime then members of the public wont bother and just claim on insurance.

    Maybe if the police tracked stolen mobiles by using the numbers they've called and convicted the people responsible theives would steal less of them.

  • Comment number 9.

    Surely these are solutions looking for a problem? If mobile operators effectively used the existing provisions to bar stolen or lost devices by their IMEI number the issue would go away. Granted you would still want some sort of remote wipe capability, like Blackberry offers, and you'd want the operator to move swiftly, but these are all possible today. I'd hate the idea of having another "token" to carry with me or having software that would further complicate my moving to a new carrier with a new SIM.

  • Comment number 10.

    All you really need to do is subsides the installation of Equipment Identity Registers (EIRs) in the third world (where most stolen phones end up) and get the operators over there signed up to using them - presto, no stolen phone will work anywhere in the world...

    The standards are all written for this to work - it just needs uptake from all the network operators

  • Comment number 11.

    Its all well and good that these security devices protect the *data* on the phone, but it wont tackle the issue of theft because there is always value in the physical device - most solutions involve simply wiping the device thereby leaving the thief with an excellent factory reset device in perfect condition to sell on!
    What I would like to see is a solution, implemented and controlled very much like Apple MobileMe remote wipe facility (without the cost!), that renders a phone completely locked out and unfixable - if its stolen, the phone then cannot be sold on. Something that should be standardised between all mobile phone vendors and handsets, perhaps the GSMA can take some responsibility here and build it into the standard.
    It would need to be a solution that even prevents the device from entering any form of recovery or hard reset mode, like the iPhones recovery mode.
    It surprised me too that mobile operators dont care about stolen phones where the IMEI number is known, why do the operators not prevent that IMEI number from communicating on their network after reported stolen? On that note, why aren't IMEI numbers of illegal prison inmate phones blocked!? All they need do is monitor the traffic at prison located mobile masts!
    I'm surprised a journo like you hasn't seen any of those proximity alarm systems before, its a tech thats been around a time now.

  • Comment number 12.

    #4. Paul.
    There are such services for most smartphone OSs, especially Windows mobile and symbian that are free, but of course they dont prevent the theft in the first place.

  • Comment number 13.

    @ #4: Im guessing Rory didn't mention Apple to stop hundreds of posts moaning about too much Apple coverage, even if they are one ones making the right technology.

    As far as fingerprints - how much will that add to the cost of the average handset? quite a lot, im guessing...

  • Comment number 14.

    #8 - i would liek to think the police have got more important things to deal with than phone theft. Also, im sure the 'tracked down' people will claim they bought the phone from a car boot sale, and that'll be the end of that

  • Comment number 15.

    TimmyNorfolk Wrote > "As far as fingerprints - how much will that add to the cost of the average handset? quite a lot, im guessing..."

    I don't think the majority of the public will care.

    Put a flash case on it, and call it something snazzy and the public will buy it.

    the iPhone being a perfect example of style over substance.

  • Comment number 16.

    And what's the difference between a fingerprint and a PIN to unlock your phone? if your telling me PIN's are easier to crack, maybe we should update our debit/credit cards first...

  • Comment number 17.

    TimmyNorfolk wrote > "And what's the difference between a fingerprint and a PIN to unlock your phone? if your telling me PIN's are easier to crack, maybe we should update our debit/credit cards first..."

    The difference being is that someone can look over your shoulder and obtain your pin.

    This tactic is used by crooks in London to obtain pin numbers for chip and pin cards, they stand over you put your pin into their phone and relieve you of the card later on.

    the fingerprint isn't exactly copyable unless they physically remove your thumb :)

    Some laptop computers already use finger print technology for verification so i can't see why it can't be incorporated into a Mobile Phone.

  • Comment number 18.

    I know that this has a slight stench of 'conspiracy theory' about it, but I always believed that network operators do not block stolen IMEI numbers because they see a stolen handset as a 'free' customer (ie, they don't have to subsidize for the handset)

  • Comment number 19.

    brightengineer wrote> "This tactic is used by crooks in London to obtain pin numbers for chip and pin cards"

    Thats half my point - maybe we should concentrate on sorting out our chip and pin system, instead of our phones.

    I know i would rather someone nicked my phone than my card & PIN...

  • Comment number 20.

    My current favourite is to use software from WaveSecure (I'm not advertising. I have no connection with them apart from using their software).

    The main advantage is that if your phone is stolen you can track it online either by mobile cell or more accurately by GPS if your phone has it. You can delete your data remotely and send messages to the phone even if the SIM has been changed.

    Of course, this never gets around the best option which is to take care of your phone in the first place.

  • Comment number 21.

  • Comment number 22.

    TimmyNorfolk wrote > "Thats half my point - maybe we should concentrate on sorting out our chip and pin system, instead of our phones."

    Well yes, thieves would much rather our money then our phones, but as the phones are easier to get their hands on then they will have to do as the phone could be worth £400 (if you have one of them Steve job iThings) £100 on the black market. Nick 10 of them and it quickly becomes an lucrative venture (albeit with a high risk)

    But the debate was on Phone Security, and not chip and pin (which for me is another heated debate). But i think on the whole the Finger Print idea would be a better option on the phones, as the technology is already there, quick and simple to use (just touch the screen with your thumb and you're away) and depending on the inbuilt security on the phone, much more secure then a PIN.

    I would also rather my phone nicked then my wallet but the case remains is that i have a 3 year old Sony ericsson and nobody in their right mind would want to take it, and i pity the fool that does ;)

  • Comment number 23.

    I visited my mate in the USA last year and was hoping to just pop my SIM card into one of his phones, he told me before i left thankfully, that their phones dont use sim cards (or at least removable ones) surely getting rid of the sim card and creating an account based structure on the handsets managed by the operator would solve a lot of these problems. a simple log onto your phone not disimular to a domain logon? good encryption of the data, tied to your imie (which im supposing is very simular to a MAC address). Job done.. also to anyone above who said that people deserve to get their phones stolen, simply put no matter how silly they are being with it, the person stealing should not be!!! and to the person who said the police had better things to deal with, i would like an explantation for that one!!

  • Comment number 24.

    Fingerprint technology is certainly a good idea (Infact it's one I quite like), a handful of devices (Like Pocket PCs) and Computer peripherals already support this technology, so cost might not be so much of an issue. But I think half the problem is what to do with devices that are already out on the market without this technology.

    GPS is one solution, being able to track the device via GPS helps those who are forgetful and can also aid the Police in retrieving the device. From what I can gather on here, that technology is already in play with iPhones and such. Obviously, the problem here is not ALL devices actually have GPS. There's also the problem with the phone simply being turned off.

    Secondly, Mobile providers can block IMEI/Sim cards which I would have thought would deter these thieves. A couple of months ago I lost both my Work mobile phone and my 3G Dongle (also for work), Vodafone promptly blocked these devices, and new devices with sim cards were sent to me straight away.

    I personally think, at the end of the day, it's common sense. If you have an expensive phone, or the latest gadget, the two best favours you can do for yourself are:

    1. Backing up your contacts/phone data

    2. Taking out insurance

    Alot of Mobile providers offer insurance services for around a fiver extra (Well O2 do at that price anyway). Sometimes banks offer Mobile insurance with a current account/credit card. The options are there and certainly worth the extra cost if Theft/Damage is a concern to you. Unfortunately that still doesn't deter thieves from stealing something off you. If they want it, they're most likely going to get it! :(

  • Comment number 25.

    Stocks, flogging, castration or deportation of thieves would probably be more effective!

  • Comment number 26.

    Prevention is the key word here.

    If we can stop people forgetting their mobile phones in bars, restaurants, etc then we can stop a crime happening. Most phones are actually lost rather than stolen which has a major impact on crime levels. It is not a crime to leave a mobile phone behind in a bar but it becomes a crime when someone picks it up and pockets it. If the owner was immediately warned of potential loss to recover or if a mobile phone was automatically and instantly blocked, the person finding it may decide to hand it in.

    In addition, there are loads of solutions like track my iphone but the crime needs to happen before these solutions become effcetive. The i-migo solution not only automatically and instantly provides protection but also stores all the data. How many of us actually back up our data on a regular basis? The i-Migo does it for you. Not only does it offer prevention but it offers a solution in cases of loss by locking it immediately and data back up. The SW can be downloaded onto another device you carry around like your car alarm key fob, so you do not need another device to carry. Also, it can be combined with solutions like track my iphone for immediate network notification to bloick phone, track or delete data.

    I may be biased as I invented the i-migo but it comes from my own experience of lossing phones. Now that phones are quickly becoming your credit card the governments, network operators and handset manu. are finally taking notice.

  • Comment number 27.

    I think that there are two very separate issues here. Firstly the cost involved in replacing stolen handsets and secondly the value of the data being stolen. I think a separate technological approach is required.

    Currently people tend sign up for contracts which often see them being tied in for 2 years to receive the latest handset. A better solution would be that the handsets were in fact 'rented' from the supplier and should the phone be stolen it is more in their interest to ensure that the phone does not work. It would also create a better solution to the recovery of old mobile phones so that they could be recycled/reused more efficiently.

    The issue of personal data could easily be solved by not saving data locally on the phone - with most handsets being able to stream data via the internet your phone could exist virtually on the web - you simply access it using your handset.

    As for the proximity device, it reminds me of a similar approach used to combat handbag theft (nothing new!). If we are sporting 'whacky' inventions then why don't we simply make the phone explode or give out an electric charge should it be stolen!!


  • Comment number 28.

    All Blackberry devices have PIN number that identifies the device, you are also able to wipe and/or “kill” (make the device unusable) a device remotely, the PIN id’s are static to the device so it will always be same and you should be able to kill the device where ever it is in the world, Even if it does not have a sim, as the kill message does not go to sim card but the device it self, and rendering the device usable.

    All phones should also have PIN identifiers, so if your phone is stolen the kill command is sent to the device and its dead and data wiped. Using PIN’s does have other advantages too, like you would be able to chat to your friends on bb IM without owning a bb.

  • Comment number 29.

    One good way to reduce mobile phone related crime, not leaving it a taxi. Eh Rory? ;)

  • Comment number 30.

    There are two easy answers, for me, if your that much of a target: a retractable tether, or a watch phone!

  • Comment number 31.

    There is a solution already available in Samsung phones. for tracking down stolen mobile phones. It is called "Mobile Tracker".
    Thieves have been caught in Kenya, thanks to this technology.
    Phones were retrieved in India after they were stolen and sold to others!.
    More about the Kenya news here:
    I applied for its patent while working for Samsung.

  • Comment number 32.

    Rory, bet you could have done with an i-migo device when you left your Blackberry in a taxi? I will make sure you get one of the first off the production line when we launch in September.

  • Comment number 33.

    Thanks for the definitely interesting article. I was thinking about something that would protect my mobile phone from the theft for quite a long time. The thing is that I am a concert manager by myself and I am always working in the places full of people. Anybody can easily pick a mobile phone from my pocket and the story is over. That's why the gadget called "i -migo" which you have mentioned in this article had interested me a lot. An alarm if my mobile phone goes somewhere out of my pre-set range sounds like a very clever idea though. I must say that I have never seen such a cell phone in the local store or other store ever.
    Mobile phone crime nowadays is really huge and we must do something about it. These crimes are not only offline ones. You can easily catch a virus and your data will be stolen too. Visiting such websites as [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] or top apps for iPhone could be crucial for you. Computer viruses are very clever now so anti-virus apps must be clever too. However sometimes these apps are not protected enough so we must come out with something new now. In other words mobile phone security will be the most popular question soon. From the offline and online sides both. Thanks for the useful article one more time and keep posting nice ones in the future too.


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