Why is the available technology not being used to trace stolen handsets?

Dear Editor,

Hardly a day goes by without a report in the media involving the theft of someone’s mobile phone. Phones are snatched by thieves from persons on the roadways or at minibus parks. Bags and purses containing cellphones are similarly stolen; sometimes persons are assaulted and injured in the process. When house-breakers and burglars invade homes, cellphones are usually among the loot. These facts are reported in the news almost every day. No one can forget Sheema Mangar who lost her life to a phone thief; the killer is still at large.

A thief, robber or burglar may steal a mobile phone as the primary objective of the theft, such as when someone’s phone is snatched in a public place. A cellphone may also be an incidental part of a larger theft, such as when burglars steal phones from a home during a break-in. In either case the result is the same: the thieves gain possession of the handset. It logically follows that there are lots of thieves, robbers and killers out there who could be found if we followed the cellphone trail, not to mention recover the instrument itself, which often represents significant sacrifice in a country where most of us live in poverty.

When a phone is stolen in Guyana and the relevant service provider is informed they usually offer to disconnect the SIM and nothing more. The thief is then free to put another SIM in the stolen handset, use it, sell it or give it away, while the rightful owner has no recourse anywhere.

It is my understanding that every handset has a unique identifying number: the IMEI (International Mobile Station Equipment Identity). This unique number is transmitted by a handset at regular intervals to tell the network where the handset is located so the network knows how to route calls to the phone. This IMEI does not change even if the SIM is replaced.

Technology exists to use the IMEI to ‘blacklist’ stolen phones rendering them useless. Technology also exists to determine the location of a stolen phone. The service provider can easily inform the police of the approximate location of a handset based on which cell tower is being hit by a particular phone’s IMEI. An exact fix can be made by triangulation using a mobile receiver. It is widely believed that such equipment was used in the past by an infamous drug baron.

This technology is available and is widely used internationally to locate and recover stolen phones and track criminals. It is also used by dictatorial regimes to track political opponents, but that is another story.

My question is, why is this technology not being used to find stolen handsets which should, with competent investigation, lead to the thieves who stole them? If it is widely known that a stolen handset will be rendered useless there will be no motive to steal phones; this alone eliminates a whole class of crime.

I can’t help but wonder if the police tried to track Sheema Mangar’s phone. Even if the IMEI of Ms Mangar’s phone was unknown, I am sure that one of her friends had her BlackBerry PIN number which is just as traceable and unchangeable as an IMEI.

Yours faithfully,
Mark DaCosta

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