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Home Office discusses thief-proof phones

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The UK Home Office yesterday met with handset manufacturers and mobile networks to identify ways in which mobile phones could be "secured by design".

This follows John Reid's comments last month.

Despite virtually eliminating mobile phone crime as recently as six weeks ago, the Home Office has been in discussions with the industry about how mobile phone crime can further be reduced, and has come up with some ideas for discussion.

Most of the ideas revolve around some mechanism for automatically shutting down a handset when it's been reported stolen - sending a coded SMS or similar - but that opens up wonderful hacking possibilities when the secret code is broken, and given the blacklisting of phone identifiers (IMEIs) it's not clear how often stolen phones are ever used.

The government's favourite topic, biometrics, is also suggested, but anyone who's tried to use a fingerprint system after sanding wood, welding, or even painting, will know just how quickly one can become persona non grata to such systems.

More esoteric biometrics will no-doubt be suggested, and rejected on the grounds of cost.

The idea of a mobile phone reporting its location back to the police is attractive, and under discussion. This is possible though network operators now, at least roughly, though you can see why the Home Office likes the idea of being able to accurately track a mobile phone on demand.

Far more interesting are discussions about how the police might be able to make more use of mobile phones recovered from suspects - how to maximise the value of all those call records and stored texts, and perhaps make use of that tracking system mentioned, in advance of a phone being stolen.

All this is driven by the apparent epidemic in mobile phone crime. Apparently, two per cent of the UK population has had a mobile phone nicked: though how many lied to get a free upgrade we don't know. We do know that 52 per cent of robberies included a mobile phone, though it seems likely a lot of those are just taken to prevent a swift call to the police. Where a mobile is the only thing stolen it's almost always (69 per cent) because it was left unattended and some opportunist grabbed it.

So the network operators and manufacturers have each sent someone along to appease the Home Office and discuss impossible technologies for solving a problem which the Home Office has told us no longer exists - makes you glad it's a Friday. ®

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