Deutsche Telekom, Camelot ITLab, and SAP are working on a blockchain network to enable the worldwide blocking of stolen phones. If stolen phones become unusable, then the theft incentive should decline.
You’re sitting at a restaurant table. You look away for a moment, and your phone disappears. You turn around and see the culprit leaving the premises. Do you get up and chase him? Not all of us have Serena Williams’ speed or guts to chase down the thief.
That said, research in the US in 2013 found that 68% of phone theft victims are willing to put themselves in some amount of danger to recover a stolen device.
The problem isn’t just the inconvenience of not having your phone, but the worry over the data. Perhaps your phone has some sensitive or personal photos, videos, and conversations. Or maybe you’re worried about your banking app, credit card details, and even some work data. Then there’s always the lurking fear of identity theft.
So how widespread is the problem? Deutsche Telekom says nearly 600 phones are stolen a day in Germany. The rate in the UK is almost 1,100 per day, and that’s a 50% decline since 2012. In the US in 2013 the figure was 8,500 a day.
Every phone has a unique identifier, a 15 digit serial number called an IMEI. If you contact the phone network, they can add your IMEI to the blocklist.
The problem is you’re only on your phone providers blocklist. So to use the phone, the thief just needs to swap the SIM to another network. Some countries have introduced a universal blacklist for all phone networks resulting in a lower level of thefts. That could explain why the UK theft rate has halved.
But it doesn’t prevent organized criminals from taking phones out of the country, especially with fluid borders in Europe.
The solution is to create a global blocklist on a blockchain. And that’s what Deutsche Telekom, Camelot ITLab, and SAP are working on.
The goal of the project is to enable everyone to access the blocking data in the future. That’s every network operator, smartphone manufacturer, and end user. If one phone network adds an IMEI, all the other blockchain partners receive the information in real time. So it’s impossible for someone to use the phone with any SIM card.
The group anticipates global police authorities and insurance companies accessing the data. That could be quite convenient. If you have a ‘parametric‘ insurance policy, and your IMEI appears on the blockchain, the insurer could give you an instant payout without you needing to make a claim.
In the future, if you buy a second-hand phone, you can check that it’s not stolen, worldwide.
Only the involved parties have the authority to make new entries, thereby securing the trustworthiness of the IMEI data. If a customer finds their lost phone, it will be possible to unblock it.
That said, the problem with shared networks is always the weakest link: one company that has more lax access policies. However, there could be a simple safeguard that only the organization that adds the block can remove it.
The project uses the Hyperledger Fabric protocol running on SAP’s Cloud Platform. Deutsche Telekom and Camelot ITLab are running external nodes.
“Through these efforts, we’re implementing the shared governance that makes blockchain networks unique in technical terms, as well,” explains Benjamin Stöckhert, business developer within the SAP Innovation Center Network.
Will the global blocklist put an end to phone theft? Probably not, but over time it should drop significantly.
The opportunities for thieves should decline substantially. No doubt organized criminals will try to circumvent IMEIs somehow. Others might attempt to bribe a person at a network to update the IMEI status on the blockchain.
And finally stolen phones can still be used for spare parts, but that’s a much smaller market.