Canada's wireless industry says it will tackle mobile device theft amid escalating pressure from police, politicians and the federal telecom regulator to fight the rise of what is being called "iCrime."
Carriers such as Quebecor Inc., Telus Corp., BCE Inc., Rogers Communications Inc., Mobilicity, Public Mobile, SaskTel, Eastlink, and Manitoba Telecom Services Inc., have teamed up with device manufacturers such as Research In Motion Ltd., Motorola and Nokia to examine security solutions as part of a group under the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA).
Costly smartphones and tablet computers, such as iPhones and iPads, are increasingly stolen and resold on a burgeoning black market. Pilfered devices can reportedly fetch hundreds of dollars on the street in Canada, but there is also growing demand in overseas markets including Russia and Ukraine, along with countries in the Middle East and Africa. Amid a rash of violent robberies in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, there is concern that fraudsters are zeroing in on gadgets as Canadians use them more for mobile banking and carriers introduce digital wallets to facilitate mobile payments.
"If the industry can help mitigate the impact of crime on consumers, it will," the CWTA wrote in a recent letter to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. "If those measures have the added bonus of making wireless consumers less of a target for criminals, then the cost of establishing them will have been well worth it."
The Canadian wireless industry has been sharply criticized for lagging behind on this issue, even as Canadians are among the world's heaviest users of smartphones. More than 26-million Canadians have a mobile phone or wireless device, and smartphones represent almost half the domestic mobile market. Since most consumers upgrade their cellphones every 18 to 20 months, it is estimated that the vast majority of Canadians will use smartphones by 2014.
That's prompted police in Toronto and Vancouver to seek federal legislation that would force mobile carriers to create a national registry to track stolen devices and prevent them from being reactivated – similar to a plan for a central database that was recently announced in the United States. Currently, Canadian carriers block mobile phones when they are reported lost or stolen but do not share information about those devices with each other.
Further complicating the problem is that carriers collect those data in "differing degrees of detail" and consider such information proprietary. That means it is impossible to quantify how widespread such crimes are in Canada, apart from anecdotal evidence and partial statistics from police.
According to one Toronto city councillor, cellphone robberies in the city have doubled in the past three years, with roughly 1,800 cases in 2011. Toronto's police chief has called the thefts an "emerging violent crime in the city." There have also been suggestions that cellphone thefts were up 37 per cent in Vancouver between 2010 and 2011.
A stumbling block to creating a national database in Canada is the potential cost, especially since major carriers are working furiously to keep their spending in check. The CWTA has previously warned that creating and maintaining a central database would likely cost millions – a suggestion that is widely dismissed by critics who note the industry pulls in annual wireless revenues of around $18-billion.
The group cautions that a national registry would do little to deter criminals from reactivating devices in other countries. In its letter, the association notes that handset theft is "still significant" in countries like the United Kingdom and Australia, which have "the most comprehensive" theft-reduction measures.
Internationally, the GSM Association has been operating a database to fight cellphone theft since 1996. That system allows global carriers to share data from their individual blacklists to prevent stolen devices from being reactivated in other markets. The problem is that registry is only used by 50 carriers in 24 countries. No major U.S. or Canadian carrier is currently connected to the database.
The U.S. announced a plan in April to create an industry-funded central database to track and de-activate lost and stolen mobile phones. CWTA spokesman Marc Choma says the handset security working group will examine the U.S. model as well as other international initiatives. In the meantime, it plans to launch an industry-wide public awareness campaign by late 2012 or early 2013 to urge Canadians to use passwords to protect their devices.