updated 07:25 pm EDT, Thu August 11, 2011
Most will be deactivated, nearly worthless
Smartphones stolen during the recent rioting in London and elsewhere in the UK will be turned into tools to help police locate looters, or blocked from being used in the UK, MacWorld UK reports. The stolen handsets all contain hardwired IMEI numbers that can be reported to a Central Equipment Identity Register (CEIR) that all major networks have access to. Once a phone is reported, it can be blocked in as little as 24 hours.
Anyone using a stolen but unblocked smartphone with a registered contract SIM will likely find themselves visited by police, either suspected of stealing the phone themselves or of buying stolen merchandise on the black market. Even "pay as you go" SIMs, which can't be traced the same way, can be blocked from the network.
Essentially, over a period of time all the stolen handsets will be useless within the UK, authorities say. It is possible to use special equipment to "detach" a phone from its original IMEI number, but the process is expensive and any new IMEI would also not work within the UK.
Criminals will have to pass on the stolen handsets to major criminal organizations that can smuggle the units out of Great Britain and into developing countries where smaller GSM networks can reactivate the phones, but even then the price commanded for them will be a small fraction of what they would have sold for.
Smartphones and social media networks have become a symbol for the violence that continues throughout Britain, having been used extensively to promote or plan violence as well as alert police to incidents or need for emergency services -- and also having become one of the main targets of looters, being small and highly portable.
Prime Minister David Cameron has discussed the possibility of closing off access to social-media networks and called for social networks to ban individuals or block posts suspected of "causing unrest," a controversial position that has drawn heavy fire from free-speech advocates, who compare his plan to similar moves by dictatorships in Egypt, Libya and Syria.
Network operators such as Orange and T-Mobile have largely been cooperative with police in identifying and locating stolen handsets and those belonging to people suspected of organizing the riots, while the social and communication networks -- including Twitter, Facebook and Research In Motion -- have resisted any call to limit their services, citing free speech concerns.
It may be small consolation to the law-abiding population of the affected areas, but the smartphones looted from stores will likely end up being virtually worthless to those who stole them. [via MacWorld UK]