LCQ7: International Mobile Equipment Identity numbers of mobile phones
Following is a question by the Hon Sin Chung-kai and a written reply by the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Mr Gregory So, at the Legislative Council meeting today (December 12):
It has been learnt that, owing to the high resale value of smart mobile phones, the number of cases of theft and snatching of mobile phones has risen substantially in recent years. There were 5 787 cases of such crimes in 2011, representing an increase of 18% as compared with 4 892 cases in the preceding year. In order to crack down on such crimes, quite a number of overseas countries, eg Singapore, the United Kingdom, Australia, France and Germany, have set up databases to keep the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers of lost or stolen mobile phones, and the local mobile phone service operators in those countries will not provide services to such mobile phones. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(a) as setting up an IMEI database may reduce the recycling value of stolen or snatched mobile phones because they cannot be used locally, and thus may help reduce such crimes, whether the authorities will reconsider setting up such a database and making it public, so that members of the public and recyclers may access it for reference before purchasing second-hand mobile phones;
(b) whether the authorities will consider amending the Telecommunications Ordinance (Cap. 106) or the Theft Ordinance (Cap. 210) to expressly prohibit the alteration of IMEI numbers of mobile phones; and
(c) as there is a condition in the licences of mobile phone service operators which prescribes that the licensees shall, where directed by the Communications Authority (CA), refuse to provide service to any person who possesses or uses a radiocommunications apparatus which is stolen or suspected stolen, whether CA (or its predecessor, the Office of the Telecommunications Authority) has ever issued such directions; if not, of the reasons for that?
Part of the Member's question relates to the programme areas of the Security Bureau (SB). Having consulted the SB, my consolidated reply is as follows:
(a) The Administration is aware that some overseas government departments or communications service providers have set up central databases of the built-in International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers of mobile phones to prevent the reuse of stolen mobile phones. As early as in 2004, the Police approached the former Office of the Telecommunications Authority (now the Office of the Communications Authority (OFCA)) to understand the technical feasibility of setting up an IMEI database to prevent the reuse of stolen mobile phones in Hong Kong. After understanding from the Police the modus operandi of culprits and conducting preliminary technical assessment, OFCA informed the Police that the effectiveness of setting up an IMEI database in reducing the culprits' incentives for theft and snatching of mobile phones by preventing the reuse of stolen mobile phones was in doubt. The reasons include:
Firstly, the IMEI number of a phone can be changed easily. Hence, it may not be effective to rely on the original IMEI numbers of the stolen mobile phones to prevent them from being reused;
Secondly, some of the mobile phone manufacturers do not embed valid IMEI numbers in the mobile phones (eg all mobile phones manufactured in the same lot may share the same IMEI number or may be embedded with non-unique IMEI numbers). Therefore, if mobile service operators refuse to provide service to a mobile phone with a particular IMEI number, users of other mobile phones which share the same IMEI number may also be affected; and
Thirdly, mobile phones lost in Hong Kong may likely be shipped out of Hong Kong for use. Thus, the setting up of an IMEI database in Hong Kong would not be effective in reducing the crimes of theft and snatching of mobile phones.
Meanwhile, with the increasing pervasiveness of smart phones and the advancement of relevant technologies, users of such phones may install mobile security software by themselves or subscribe to security service plans provided by mobile service operators in order to locate their lost or stolen smart phones, lock the devices or remotely delete the data on the lost phones. As the applications of such software and plans become increasingly popular, not only would it become more difficult to reuse stolen and snatched mobile phones, but it would also improve the protection against theft of personal information. In addition, the security effects of these alternatives will continue even when the stolen mobile phones are shipped out of Hong Kong, making them more effective solutions than setting up an IMEI database and relevant systems by which the mobile phones can only be made inoperable locally.
(b) As mentioned above, even if the IMEI database is set up, stolen mobile phones can still be used outside Hong Kong without the need of altering the IMEI numbers. Moreover, some mobile phone manufacturers do not embed unique IMEI numbers in mobile phones, rendering the IMEI numbers ineffective in identifying individual mobile phones. As a result, prohibiting the alteration of IMEI numbers of mobile phones cannot effectively prevent the theft of mobile phones. Hence, the Administration currently has no intention to make relevant amendments to the Telecommunications Ordinance (Cap. 106) nor the Theft Ordinance (Cap. 210).
(c) As mentioned in part (a) of the reply, verification and identification of stolen mobile phones by means of IMEI numbers involve various kinds of technical problems. Therefore, the Communications Authority has not issued any directions to prohibit the provision of services under the licence condition mentioned in the question.
Wednesday, December 12, 2012