India's Central Device Repository: Anti-Theft or Anti-Privacy?

Sudha Nagaraj Bharadwaj, Journalist | 12/20/2012 | 15 comments

Sudha Nagaraj Bharadwaj
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.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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Don K   India's Central Device Repository: Anti-Theft or Anti-Privacy?   1/31/2013 10:53:20 PM
Re: Who Has
That's a good way batye. That is the easiest but the safest
Sudha N Bharadwaj   India's Central Device Repository: Anti-Theft or Anti-Privacy?   1/3/2013 9:00:48 PM
Re: VIP persons mobiles can be tracked too??

I think once the pilot is done and there is a plan to set up the CDR permanently, these issues will come up and there will be considerable debate revolving around privacy, privilege and so on.
batye   India's Central Device Repository: Anti-Theft or Anti-Privacy?   1/2/2013 1:34:10 AM
Re: Who Has
I trust who is in power would be making decision for everyone else... as per history...
batye   India's Central Device Repository: Anti-Theft or Anti-Privacy?   1/1/2013 11:00:05 PM
Re: Who Has
Rich - good question:) I would also ask - how decision would be made on what grounds?
Syerita Turner   India's Central Device Repository: Anti-Theft or Anti-Privacy?   12/26/2012 1:30:31 PM
Re: recovering a lost phone is impossible!!!
Interesting post and comments. I believe that this is potentially a waste and has some underlying tones to the main reason to place a tracking device within a cell phone. If the phone is stolen and you trace it really how can you recover the stolen property? Even still when you catch up with the phone how can you prove that the phone was stolen by the person with the phone and it hasn't been sold on the black market. What this will potnetially do is cause problems with innocent people that will ultimately take the fall for something that they didn't do themselves. I think sticking with deactivating a stolen phone and replacing it with a new one will continue to work without going this route.
Don K   India's Central Device Repository: Anti-Theft or Anti-Privacy?   12/24/2012 4:55:06 AM
Re: recovering a lost phone is impossible!!!
Here in SL we can track the device as soon as he tries to use it even via a different SIM.
michaelsumastre   India's Central Device Repository: Anti-Theft or Anti-Privacy?   12/21/2012 8:23:53 AM
India's Central Device Repository: Anti-Theft or Anti-privacy?
In our country, we also depend on the IMEI number to track lost and stolen phones. I lost a couple of phones before, but I had not relayed such information to our telecommunications commission. Most of those who steal phones here are "petty thieves," which don't know a lot about technologies that can change IMEI. Maybe those who accept stolen goods too. Anyway, I hope India's plan will work, but I also think they need to reconsider privacy issues. Perhaps if they can assure that only phone numbers can be tracked, then I'm going to be all for it. 
Salik   India's Central Device Repository: Anti-Theft or Anti-Privacy?   12/20/2012 8:52:29 PM
Re: recovering a lost phone is impossible!!!
These lost phones can be such a trouble. I had lost a phone once but the person got caught because he was not so smart. He talked all night from my connection. :D. But he could have done something much more worse.
Umair Ahmed   India's Central Device Repository: Anti-Theft or Anti-Privacy?   12/20/2012 7:06:07 PM
Re: recovering a lost phone is impossible!!!
@ Rdv: I am sorry for your loss. I have lost six phones in total so I can understand your pain. I wish the CDR works for you but if it is dependent on tracking using IMEI number, there are few chances. IMEI tracking of the lost device can even be prevented by replacing the IMEI chip with that of some other useless phone.
Umair Ahmed   India's Central Device Repository: Anti-Theft or Anti-Privacy?   12/20/2012 6:54:15 PM
Tracking & Blocking doesn't work
The efficacy of blocking IMEI numbers in the light of availability of software that can reprogram the number.

@ Sudha: Great post, this is a big issue. Blocking cell phones using IMEI number has failed previously in Pakistan because of the problem you listed above. Software to reprogram the IMEI number is cheaply and widely available. Simply making the legislations to prevent reprogramming the number won't work unless the government doesn't take step to eliminate the market of stolen handsets and seriously take actions against those involved.

Being too optimistic and assuming if the system effectively works in the country, that won't be the complete solution even. In that case, many of the stolen handsets would be dismantled and sold in parts, or export out of the country illegally where restrictions won't work.
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