'Stop, thief!' say phone manufacturers

Hot on the heels of an initiative by network operators to discourage mobile phone theft, six phone manufacturers publicly pledged their support Tuesday for an industry plan to prevent the reprogramming of stolen phones.

The move, announced at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, France, will reinforce the network operators' efforts to stop the stolen mobile phone trade.

On Feb. 9, network operators announced plans to create an international register of stolen phones to block them from being used on any network, removing any economic incentive to steal and export them to another country. The register of stolen phones' IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) numbers suffers from one weakness: Most phones on the market today can be reprogrammed with a new IMEI, allowing thieves to get around the block.

"We identified that the register wouldn't work if phones could be reprogrammed," said Rob Conway, chief executive officer of the GSM Association, the trade body for operators of networks based on the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) standard.

Phone manufacturers including Motorola Inc., NEC Corp., Nokia Corp., Panasonic Mobile Communications Co. Ltd., Sagem SA, Siemens AG and Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB have now agreed upon a number of measures for preventing that reprogramming, he said.

"We had discussed this (years ago). This is now a serious public policy concern," he said.

Indeed, the European Commissioner for Enterprise and the Information Society, Erkki Liikanen, also speaking at the event in Cannes, welcomed the move.

"We should do everything possible to guarantee that you cannot steal a phone, that it doesn't have the same value in the end," Liikanen said.

While design changes to new phones will not prevent theft, they should go some way to reducing the problem, Conway said, adding, "It's not a foolproof solution. Hackers always try to get one step ahead of you."

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