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US Mobile Carriers Won't Brick Stolen Phones 269

WheezyJoe writes "NBC News has some disturbing security video of people getting assaulted for their smartphones. Such offenses are on the rise. Police chiefs like D.C.'s Cathy Lanier are asking U.S. mobile carriers to brick phones that are reported stolen, in order to dry up what must be a big underground market for your favorite Android device or iPhone — but right now the carriers won't do it. Such an approach has had success in Australia and the U.K."
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US Mobile Carriers Won't Brick Stolen Phones

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  • by RichMan ( 8097 ) on Friday March 23, 2012 @04:32PM (#39455819)

    Accomplice in theft. The phone would be useless if the carrier was not cooperating. So the carrier is adding value to and encouraging the theft.

    Should be a nice massive group action lawsuit in there somewhere.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      If a lawyer needs a lead plaintiff for a class action suit, post contact info here.

      I am perplexed about how lost or stolen Verizon phones don't find their way back to Verizon. They are supposedly not capable of being reactivated with their hard-coded EIN numbers. So why does anyone steal them? If only Verizon and/or Assurion marketed the fact that they don't reactivate phones reported stolen and that they'd give a $50 reward for returned phones (paid by subscriber), we'd see a drop in Verizon phones grow

    • The phone would be useless if the carrier was not cooperating.

      You're taking their comments at face value. GSM network locks can be removed by third parties. Granted, it's illegal to do so, but this is not something that's going to stop pawn shops, recyclers, or fencing operations.

      That's why, I'm having trouble taking their comment at face value. They claim violent crimes in Australia went down in the last ten years. Is this really the case? Where are the actual statistics? Besides, I believe that violent crimes also went down in the United States within the last ten y

  • Make a law!!! get some use for the that congress.

    • by Dahamma ( 304068 )

      Agreed - there are a lot of needless and stupid laws out there, but this would not be one of them.

      Another poster already made the analogy of cars and VINs - when a car is stolen it goes into the system and no DMV will renew registration and issue new plates for it. Pretty sure that was mandated by law. Imagine how much better it would work if it were instantly enforceable to the point of disabling the engine as soon as it was reported stolen (which is effectively what the carriers could do with technology

      • by Stiletto ( 12066 )

        So, if I don't like you, I should be able to report your car as stolen, and get them to disable the engine while you're on the highway? Sounds wonderful!

        • by Uhyve ( 2143088 )
          Let me restate something for you. This has already been tried out in the UK and Australia successfully. You don't think a problem like that would've been though of and solved by now? Or are you and the other 100 people dreaming up this same stupid scenario smarter than everybody in the UK?
      • by Tassach ( 137772 )

        Imagine how much better it would work if it were instantly enforceable to the point of disabling the engine as soon as it was reported stolen

        I CAN imagine what would happen if that were possible, and the word "better" isn't the one that springs to mind. "Kafkaesque Nightmare" is more like it.

        Do you REALLY want to give some anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrat the ability to remotely disable your car at the touch of a button? REALLY???

        Do you really trust the government (or big business) to able to do that without making mistakes or abusing that power?

        Do you really think a system like that WOULDN'T get hacked?

        Do you really think that moneyed int

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 23, 2012 @04:35PM (#39455865)

    If your phone gets stolen, you have to buy a new phone; most often this is done by people signing up for 2 more years to get the subsidized handset since few are willing to shell out $300+ for a smartphone. And whoever ends up with the stolen phone also signs up for service. So every stolen phone results in a new customer, an extended customer, and a (subsidized) phone sale.

    But if they BRICK your stolen phone, then theft of stolen phones decreases, which hurts them because they'll have fewer new customers, fewer retained customers, and fewer phone sales.

    That hurts profits, which is un-American. I'm shocked and appalled that someone in the public / government sector would suggest this! It might be time to privatize the police forces... that way the telecoms can stop relying on 3rd parties to enhance their sales and have the cops start stealing your phones directly.

    Captcha was endemic. It's like slashdot KNOWS.

    • This was my first thought. The second was "wait, there are phones that can be remotely BRICKED? 8-( "

      • If they can send a firmware update to the phone, then they can brick it. All they'd need to do is push a special (invalid) update only to that one user, who would then need to be dumb enough to accept it if the update can't be remotely forced.

        Realistically though, I think bricking is overkill in this case - by definition if its bricked, the phone should not be recoverable if there was a mistake.

        All they need to do is log the phones unique ID, add it to a list shared by all carriers using compatible technol

      • by dissy ( 172727 )

        The second was "wait, there are phones that can be remotely BRICKED? 8-( "

        Some carriers load up their own software, such as Verizon. Some also include(d) carrier-IQ in the smartphone, so it is possible to have enabled backdoor functions. Bricking is technically possible, even if they never did it.

        Additionally if your phones unique ID was in a "stolen phone" database then it really shouldn't be allowed back on the cellular network. This is just one of those common sense things to expect, it's a bit surprising to find out the police had to request this, let alone had their reque

  • More stolen phones means more phones being replaced, also if you are on contract you can be liable for a huge bill. [] The UK government had to actually bring in a law requiring carriers to block stolen phones (or threaten to legislate, I can't remember whether the carriers caved before the law was due to introduced).
  • by Kenja ( 541830 ) on Friday March 23, 2012 @04:37PM (#39455881)
    I cant speak for the other carriers, but Verizon will not activate a phone that has been reported as stollen. Sure, its not "bricked", but its near useless.
    • Verizon is CDMA, You could simply obtain the master lock codes and port the phone to sprint or some other carrier.
      • by UnifiedTechs ( 100743 ) on Friday March 23, 2012 @04:47PM (#39456029) Homepage
        Actually neither Sprint or Verizon will activate a phone not originally purchased from them. And neither will activate a phone reported stolen by an owner. Honestly this seems like a problem strictly for phones with SIM cards.
        • by cdrguru ( 88047 )

          So, while Verizon doesn't like people bringing in phones, resellers of Verizon service (Cricket, Virgin, etc.) are more than happy to do so. Verizon isn't in complete control of their own mobile service since a lot (25%? 30%? more?) of it is due to resellers selling access to the same towers.

          Oh, an what do you need to use Cricket? A Verizon-compatible phone.

        • Sprint absolutely won't activate any phone not sold by them (or at least wholesaled to someone by them). Verizon won't go out of its way to HELP you, but if you can figure out how to make some arbitrary CDMA phone work on Verizon, they won't stand in your way and prohibit you from using it, either.

          I'm not 100% sure, but I think Verizon's grudging willingness to let you use any compatible phone is an artifact of the original Bell breakup & consent decree that prohibited Bell from requiring that customers

        • Wait what? Phones don't have SIM cards? How are you supposed to port your phone to another carrier, or use your account on another phone?

  • Sprint and Verizon don't need to brick the phones since they are CDMA networks and once those phones are reported stolen they are essentially black-balled from the network any way. T-Mobile, AT&T, and all other sim-card services would have to figure out some type of alternative in safe-guarding stolen phones.
    • I've read that piggyback carriers like Boost Mobile (Sprint) will activate CDMA phones that have had their ESNs blacklisted.

      • And on further inspection it appears I read wrong. People get their blacklisted Sprint phones onto Boost by getting a cheapo boost phone and then cloning the ESN from that phone onto their blacklisted phone.

        • It's *possible* to change the ESN, but on the hierarchy of technically-minor things that can get you sent to prison for a really long time with minimal burden of proof on the part of the prosecution, you'd almost have to be criminally insane to do it, because you could end up serving 10+ years just for knowingly being in possession of a phone with a cloned ESN & making a call with it. And if the prosecution were feeling extraordinarily kind & let YOU off the hook because you convinced them you purch

          • you'd almost have to be criminally insane to do it,

            Then there are all hell of a lot of criminally insane people out there because the practice is common.

        • by Guppy ( 12314 )

          Yup, if you look through Ebay, they're plenty of sellers offering "Bad ESN" Sprint phones (and if the ESN status isn't made explicitly clear, better ask before buying). Not all were stolen of course -- there are also phones from broken contracts and delinquent accounts.

          No shortage of buyers apparently, and I have a hard time believing they're all being purchased for spare parts.

    • by Dahamma ( 304068 )

      On the same carrier, maybe. But, for example, the iPhone 4s is a world phone (with CDMA and GSM), and if unlocked, etc. could be used on another company's network (in the US or another country). That's why any effective solution would need a database shared among all carriers, ideally globally so the stolen phones aren't just sent to Mexico, etc.

  • Here's what I don't get: if the carriers are capable of, even if unwilling to, bricking phones remotely, that must mean they know where those phones are at any given time, at least to the level of the nearest cell tower. If the phone is on the internet, they can be even more accurate than that. So, it seems to me, the phones themselves are built-in tracking devices that would work in law enforcement's favor; something that bricking would destroy.

    Why not just work with law enforcement, through proper warrant

    • by RichMan ( 8097 )

      Whoa There. You mean have the police work. That is crazy talk.

      And finding a cell phone theif would likely lead to larger crimes being solved.
      Think of the paper work involed there.

      • Yeah, it's not like cops have more important cases to deal with than a petty theft, right? I'm pretty sure that solving a murder, for example, is a better way to spend their time than finding a $500 cell phone.

        • by kyrio ( 1091003 )
          The huge majority of cops are not working anything even close to a murder case, and will likely never work a murder case in their entire careers.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Because while you are tracking down stolen phone/ipads you end up tripping over (and stubbing your toe to boot) on that $35M/750lbs of meth just lying around.

      Stupid piles of drugs are everywhere and are always getting in the way of real police work, like finding some poor bastard's stolen ipad.

    • The use of the term "Bricking" is misleading in this context. What they're actually talking about is IMSI blacklisting. Every cell phone has a unique hardware ID much like a MAC address that can be blacklisted by the carriers.

    • If the phone is on the internet, they can be even more accurate than that.

      Uh, say what? How does DHCP provide better resolution than knowing what cell tower you are communicating with??

      Knowing a location to within a square mile - i.e. which cell tower - isn't very useful. However, most smartphones have a built-in GPS - if the carrier can remotely access the phone and provide the police with a GPS location, THAT would be useful.

      • If the phone is on the internet, they can be even more accurate than that.

        Ask Google. Part of the "location" info that the phone reports is what wifi it's connected to and Google has been quietly mapping wifi locations. This is why my ipod with no cell service knows my location to within several hundred feet when I go to Google Maps.

    • by Dahamma ( 304068 )

      It's completely possible, the problem is neither the carriers nor the police have any interest in doing it.

      It's not in the carrier's interest to spend a dime helping to track down your phone - after mine was stolen (and then used to call several local numbers that I could clearly see in my statement!) AT&T told me it would be a waste of my time to notify the police. Unless you live in Mayberry they are just going to take your report, ignore it, and if they are honest tell you flat out they just don't h

    • by sl149q ( 1537343 )

      Perhaps Apple should refuse to allow any reported stolen iPhone or iPad to be used with iTunes.

      Wouldn't totally prevent stolen devices from being used but would make them a lot less valuable.

  • When my cousin stole my uncle's phone, he called up his carrier and it was bricked.
    He had gone through the process before apparently as well. (My cousin isn't the best of people)
  • This is a no-brainer (Score:5, Informative)

    by moderators_are_w*nke ( 571920 ) on Friday March 23, 2012 @04:43PM (#39455985) Journal

    As per TFA, we've had this in the UK for years. As the US networks say, it's not perfect as the IMEI can be changed on some phones and they can be exported abroad but its a hell of a lot better than nothing. Most mobile phone robberies are not organised exporters, they're people after a quick profit, often to feed a drug habit.

    It's common sense, it works, do it.

  • It's quite clear that the Mobile carriers are robbing us blind as citizens and as consumers, not to mention the abuses of our civil liberties. It's no surprise they aren't willing to help curtail similar actions.

  • by hpj ( 26910 ) on Friday March 23, 2012 @04:46PM (#39456013) Homepage

    I've worked developing cell phone operator software for almost a decade on 3 different continents (Not in the US though) and many different countries and as far as I know every single cell phone operator that I have worked for use the GSM standard practice of blocking the EMEI number which will cause the phone to be bricked on any GSM network in the world (AT&T & T-Mobile base their network on the GSM standard in the USA) and I was flabbergasted when a few months ago my 2 week old iPhone 4S was stolen AT&T would not do the same here.

    Normally the procedure in other countries is that you just bring your cell phone operator the police report and they will immediately block the phone, basically turning it into a big media player (Assuming it is a smart phone). I can't understand how the operators here claim that they need to investigate technical solutions. This was designed and built into the original GSM standard that has been around since the late 1980:s and as far as I know the feature has also been in use since that time.

    I totally agree with the article that it is unconscionable that operators here refuse to do this I am assuming to save a few bucks on cell phone subsidies.

  • by Truekaiser ( 724672 ) on Friday March 23, 2012 @04:47PM (#39456027)

    they don't want to because it earns them money. they don't care if the phone is stolen as long as it brings in revenue. a few pissed off people getting odd bills after the phone is stolen doesn't concern them, they can wait out any customer dispute till they just give up and pay.

  • by davidwr ( 791652 ) on Friday March 23, 2012 @05:07PM (#39456285) Homepage Journal

    Instead of bricking, lock the user interface, put them in a periodic beaconing mode, and send the posse after the phone.

    DO put the phone in a mode where if the battery dies or is removed it can't be restarted without opening the case and doing vendor magic.

    DO store all non-removable-media data in encrypted form and zap the key as soon as the phone is told that it is stolen.

    DO give the customer the option of storing data that is on removable media in encrypted form as well.

    • Instead of bricking, lock the user interface, put them in a periodic beaconing mode, and send the posse after the phone.

      You'd better find your own posse because often times the police do not care [] (not the first time I have heard of something similar)

  • by sdnoob ( 917382 ) on Friday March 23, 2012 @05:17PM (#39456403)

    don't buy five hundred friggin dollar phone.

  • by Manip ( 656104 ) on Friday March 23, 2012 @05:21PM (#39456445)
    First off I think carriers should do this; but that being as it may I will say that this doesn't really work in either the UK or Australia - phone theft has not disappeared or become less common as a result.

    It is easy to understand why when you consider how trivial it is to unlock phones and then sell them on to international customers, particularly in Europe where a blocked phone in the UK might still be worth upwards of 300 euro on eBay Germany or France.

    Another interesting question is - what, if anything, has Apple done? They could very easily block phones interacting with its iTunes stores if the phone was reported stolen in any part of the world but they haven't. Why is that?
  • WRONG! (Score:4, Informative)

    by meburke ( 736645 ) on Friday March 23, 2012 @05:45PM (#39456667)

    I know for a fact that Sprint (I worked for them for a while) creates a "lost or stolen" database. If your Sprint phone is stolen you report it to sprint and the "lost/stolen" service is placed on your phone. This renders the phone unusable: No calls, no messages. If you get a new phone, when you activate the new phone on the old number there is a check for "lost/stolen" and the SN/MEID goes into a database and that cannot be activated on sprint again. All allegations of carriers not concerned about the theft of phones is bogus.

    My carrier is ATT. I know for a fact that they have exactly the same service although it is applied a little differently.

    However, the phone would still be usable after hacking such as cloning. The carriers can only block the phone services on their network; not destroy the phone itself.

    • by meburke ( 736645 )

      I forgot to add that the insurance company has the ability to locate phones through the GPS, and we have found phones through the "family locator service". Unfortunately, the gps is not necessarily precise enough, and by itself is not enough to get a warant.

  • Speaking strictly from an environmental standpoint, If they're bricked, they go straight in the trash can and into the landfills. A waste of precious materials and circuitry that could be recycled or reclaimed if the phone is recovered. Let's not pretend this technology doesn't exist. Between CarrierIQ, E911 and gps pings, it's not hard to recover it if the device is on.

The optimum committee has no members. -- Norman Augustine