AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless launched a database for stolen smartphones last year, and today the wireless industry says that database system is complete. CTIA president and CEO Steve Largent announced that the database now allows carriers to block activation of LTE smartphones as well as 3G devices, hopefully deterring their theft, and has been integrated with international databases so foreign carriers can assist the effort. "As more countries and more carriers around the world participate in the 3G and 4G/LTE databases, criminals will have fewer outlets since these stolen phones would be blacklisted and could not be reactivated," wrote Largent in a press release.
International enforcement is key
That point about international carriers is more important than you might think. While the US database has been active for a year, New York City officials say it hasn't made a real dent in smartphone thefts. Since foreign carriers weren't included in the original effort, organized crime syndicates are literally fronting truckloads of cash to ship stolen smartphones overseas where they can be sold without fear. Smartphone theft is such an issue in San Francisco and New York City, in fact, that prosecutors launched the "Save Our Smartphones Initative", hoping to convince US carriers and smartphone manufacturers to install a "kill switch" in their devices that could completely deactivate them if they were stolen.
However, that initiative has been met with resistance from the wireless industry. Just last week, SF district attorney George Gascón testified that AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon had rejected the idea of adding third-party anti-theft software to their devices, even though Samsung had offered to do so. Gascón believes that's because the carriers are afraid of losing revenue from the insurance they sell to cover lost or stolen smartphones. The CTIA argues that kill switches could be hazardous: hackers might be able to remotely disable phones that are legitimately being used.
Do we need a kill switch to keep thieves at bay?
Though most smartphones already offer tools to let you locate lost phones, only Apple has managed to offer a feature which satisfies SF and NYC prosecutors' desire to deter theft. The Activation Lock feature of iOS 7 can not only remotely wipe a phone, but keep it from being reactivated without the owner's credentials.
We're curious to see if a broader international database of phones can keep crime rate down, but it depends on how many international carriers sign on, how strictly the program is enforced, and whether — as prosecutors claim — thieves can simply reprogram a phone's identifier to circumvent that database altogether. When asked by The Verge whether the new database is likely to curb crime, Gascón said "Not likely. The UK tried a national registry and has not slowed down thefts."