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Home Office to secure mobile phones

Despite eradicating phone theft in 2007

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The UK's Design Council has been working with the Home Office to create technologies designed to prevent mobile phone theft - which is rampant, or not, depending on when you ask.

Development of the three technologies has been funded by the Technology Strategy Board, as part of the Mobile Phone Security Challenge, and will be demonstrated at the mobile industry shindig in Barcelona next week.

The breakthrough technologies that are going to leave thieves destitute are: a requirement for a PIN when the SIM is replaced; a tag which bleeps when the mobile phone is out of range; and (our favourite) an NFC card which is waved near the NFC-enabled phone in order to authorise an NFC transaction.

Requiring a PIN when replacing a SIM is already a feature of some handsets, though rarely enabled, and bracelets equipped with Bluetooth can already alert you if your phone gets too far away, as well as buzzing when a call comes in. The i-migo product named by the Home Office can't do that, but it will offer a backup capability instead.

Our favourite innovation, though, has to be the "Touch Safe" - a card (or tag) which is carried in addition to the phone. When you want to use Near Field Communications for a transaction you just take out your card and place it near your phone, then place the phone near the NFC reader and away you go.

It's fun to imagine those boarding the London Underground balancing this teetering combination of items on the reader as they stream through the NFC-based gates - quite why you couldn't do the entire transaction with the card (as already happens) isn't explained.

Phones are still stolen in the UK, despite an international database that prevents them being used once they've been reported stolen which was expected to make theft pointless. But in reality some phones never get reported, and some are taken during a mugging to prevent the rozzers being called too quickly, but most are nicked by opportunists when left lying around on tables and in bags.

The Home Office tells us that 228 phones are reported stolen every hour in the UK. That's doubly scary as the government's own figures put annual mobile theft at around 700,000, so we're forced to assume that over a million of those phones reported stolen are later recovered.

But it's not just theft which has got the Home Office all in a lather: apparently "Mobile phone identity fraud rose 74 per cent in the first half of 2009", which is obviously a concern to every one of us. We're not sure what exactly "mobile phone identity fraud" is; the Home Office rep we spoke to agreed that it was unlikely to be people pretending to be mobile phones and promised to get back to us when he found out.

Whatever it is we clearly need to come down on it hard, and only by carrying more NFC-enabled devices can we prevent the plague of mobile phone identities being used fraudulently. ®

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