The Indian government is toying with the idea of setting up a Central Device Information Registry (CDIR) to enable real-time tracking of mobile phones.
According to media reports, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has given approval for a trial run to test technology that is touted to be an effective anti-theft solution. The proposal for the pilot has been floated by MNP Interconnection Telecom Solutions, a joint venture of Indian company DTC Private Ltd. and New Jersey-based Telcordia Technologies Inc. MNP offers number portability services in the country.
The technology works by consolidating real-time and non-real-time data to track the location of a mobile device. The CDIR will host the International Mobile Equipment Identity numbers of all mobile phones used in India -- provided the trial run is a success and the government decides to follow through with the plan.
While the details of how the technology will be deployed in India have not been explained, media reports suggest that the DoT is evaluating it from the point of view of locating lost phones in real-time. Tracking stolen mobile phones has been a big challenge in India. Though mobile device tracking solutions based on traditional Equipment Identity Registers (EIRs) have been available, they have not proved effective, as they rely on static data. Law enforcement agencies have not been able to curb counterfeit devices, cloning of SIM cards, invalid device blocking, and continued theft. As a result, there is a flourishing and illegal market for stolen handsets in the country.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India did try to solve the problem by blocking lost and stolen handsets in 2004, but gave up the attempt on finding that service providers lacked the capability. Though technologies like mobile tracker, remote wiping of data, online help sites, and GPS tracing have since surfaced, there is little public awareness of the solutions. While a final report is pending, TRAI’s consultations with the industry in 2010 brought out some issues:
- The efficacy of blocking IMEI numbers in the light of availability of software that can reprogram the number.
- The timeframe within which a blocked IMEI number may be unblocked if a lost phone is recovered. Should this service be charged to consumers?
- Whether blocked numbers strain the network. If so to what extent would the network be burdened?
- Is the maintenance of a centralized repository of blocked numbers desirable? If so, should it be done at the national level or regional level?
- The need for a legislation to prevent reprogramming of mobile devices.
In the interim, news has trickled in about this proposal for a trial run of the CDIR. Expected to start next month, it has caused raised eyebrows because there is a possibility of misuse of any data collected. While the authorities have made it clear that adequate safeguards would be put in place, there is fear over the possibility of surveillance through the real-time tracking technology.
On the face of it, the CDIR is touted as a next-generation centralized registry of mobile device data, which maintains extensive and constantly updated information on handsets, including IMEI-IMSI-MSISDN triplets for all networks, with cross-references to the national number portability database.
It helps operators provide effective anti-theft services, such as immediate device blocking when a SIM card is replaced -- very handy in preventing bulk device theft from retailers or manufacturers. It enables authorities to monitor and enforce import duty and tax or VAT regulations by registering and certifying each mobile device.
Law enforcement agencies can better combat criminals by establishing a “chain of custody” that in turn flags unauthorized users of mobile phones. It helps enforce mandatory device certification and protect emerging domestic mobile manufacturing industries and the public from black market importation, counterfeiting, and related crime.
If the trial is successful, a tender would be floated to invite bids to set up and maintain the CDIR, but the question is whether any company (or even government) should be handed such a repository.