Canada's wireless industry is vowing to combat mobile device theft following months of pressure from the federal telecom regulator, police and politicians.
The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, an industry group representing carriers, announced a plan on Thursday to make it more difficult for criminals to reactivate stolen devices, such as smartphones and tablet computers.
At the crux of that strategy is a push by carriers to "blacklist" stolen gadgets a move that would reduce the incentive for theft. By Sept. 30, 2013, carriers will make it standard practice to verify whether a devices International Mobile Equipment Identity number is listed as stolen in Canada and internationally before it is cleared for activation.
The new verification process will cover the vast majority of cellphones operating in Canada, including new handsets that run on LTE (long-term evolution) networks that are becoming the biggest targets of theft. It would also apply to tablets that run on LTE networks through a subscription, but would not include those that only use WiFi.
The launch of an industry strategy follows months of pushing from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, MPs and police, which have criticized carriers for failing to do their part to protect consumers. Canadians are among the worlds heaviest users of smartphones and increasing numbers are falling victim to violent robberies in cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal a trend that is being dubbed iCrime.
Last month, the CRTC issued an ultimatum to the wireless industry, saying it is prepared to force the creation of a central registry. The regulator noted that U.S. carriers have already made strides to setting up their own blacklist south of the border. "I would strongly encourage the industry to implement the database before September, 2013, to ensure Canadians benefit from this added protection as soon as possible," CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said in a statement.
The CWTA estimates it will cost the industry roughly $20-million to set up a central registry. It is also planning a public service campaign, including a new website ( www.ProtectYourData.ca ) to educate consumers on securing their personal data.
"We feel this will have an impact, but I don't want anyone to have the perception or the impression that suddenly there will be no more stolen devices in Canada. We can't guarantee that," CWTA chief executive officer Bernard Lord said.
"This is a tool that reduces the incentive to steal because it makes it harder to reconnect the stolen phone to a network. But why thieves act and how they act, they can still decide to steal phones. And we see in Australia and the U.K., even though they have a similar database, they still have stolen phones."
The telecommunications association is asking the federal government to make it illegal to tamper with the IMEI number on wireless devices. Britain and Australia already have such laws in place and the U.S. is mulling a legislative change.
"Our government is always looking at ways to improve our justice system. Cellphone theft affects many Canadians and we are pleased to look into the issue further," said Julie Di Mambro, press secretary for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.
NDP MP Mike Sullivan said he is prepared to introduce a private members bill if the Conservative government fails make tampering with IMEI numbers illegal. Cellphone thefts have been a growing problem in his Ontario riding of York South-Weston, especially with teenagers being mugged as they walk home from school.
"We've seen the robberies increase especially because the phones have become more valuable," said Jim Chu, Chief Constable of the Vancouver Police Department and president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
He said violent cellphone thefts increased by 71 per cent in downtown Montreal from 2010 to 2011 and 37 per cent in Vancouver over that same time frame, noting that stolen devices can fetch hundreds of dollars on the black market.
"If everybody's in it, then that will significantly enhance the coverage and the ability of the database to work properly," said Ted Woodhead, vice-president of telecom policy and regulatory affairs at Telus Corp.