Smartphones are amazing devices. Half of us Americans carry Swiss army knives of communication and computing wherever we go. They're worth hundreds of dollars even if you got yours free with a two-year contract. And there's plenty of resale value in these things.
Robbers and thieves have noticed. According to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, 40% of all robberies in major cities like New York and Washington, D.C., now target cellphones.
Besides putting you at risk for violent harm at gunpoint or the business end of a knife, our phones are often full of sensitive data like account numbers and passwords. A stolen smartphone puts you at risk for identity theft, and the robber would drool rivers over easy access to your bank and brokerage accounts. So it's no surprise to see crooks targeting these mobile treasure troves.
Our treasured communication hubs have become a safety problem and it's time to do something about it. So this week, the FCC and wireless industry organization CTIA got together with the four largest wireless networks to put a plan in action.
AT&T, Verizon, Sprint-Nextel (NYSE: S ) , and T-Mobile USA are getting together to create an industrywide database of stolen smartphones. Carriers will then be able to look into that resource and lock out stolen property from their networks, reducing the mightiest LTE 4G monster to a tiny Wi-Fi tablet. And even so, the carrier will be able to lock the stolen phone down or even wipe it completely, so the thief is left with nothing but an expensive paperweight.
The idea is to reduce the resale value of stolen phones, while also educating consumers about how we can protect our data with password locks, remote locking apps, and plain old common sense. A stolen phone should be "as worthless as an empty wallet" in the words of Senator Charles Schumer, who also backs this project and plans to introduce new laws to reinforce it.
Each of the major carriers should have its own database up and running within six months, and the cross-carrier version will be in place by November 2013. And along the way, the early backers expect smaller networks to join the effort.
A similar system is already running in Europe and Australia. Without a global database running somewhere, smartphones could still be sold to unprotected areas like Russia and China. Nevertheless, there's some merit to making thieves work harder for their ill-gotten riches. While phone theft has been rising in America over the last decade, thieves are actually losing interest in phones where blocking measures exist.
I'd like to thank the academy, my mom...but not that guy in the corner
Genachowski thanked a few handset and operating system makers for their support in enabling the locking functions and tracking mechanisms that are on the table. It's an interesting list; Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , Nokia (NYSE: NOK ) , Microsoft, and Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) got a nod of appreciation alongside a number of platform-agnostic device makers.
Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , however, was not mentioned. Was that an oversight by the FCC or a lack of interest from Big G, leaving handset makers to sort out anti-theft features for Android phones? As it stands, Genachowski's comments put Android in a bad light, while Apple, RIM, Microsoft, and Nokia look like consumer-saving saints.
It's refreshing to see an industry coming together to do the right thing, especially when the safety of regular Americans is on the line. As smartphone sales continue to explode and saturate the mobile market over the coming years, this database is set to save thousands of Americans untold amounts of personal and financial grief.