MWC: Home Office Unveils Tech To Combat Phone Theft

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

The Home Office has unveiled several technologies to combat phone theft, including a system that uses contactless communication to authenticate mobile transactions

The UK’s Design Council, working in conjunction with the Home Office, has developed three technologies designed to prevent mobile phone theft, due to be demonstrated at the upcoming Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

“The prototypes were developed by teams of designers and technology experts as part of the Mobile Phone Security Challenge, an initiative from the Home Office Design and Technology Alliance and the Design Council, with support and funding from the Technology Strategy Board,” said the Home Office.

The aim of the challenge is to tackle a worrying rise in crime associated with mobile phones. According to the Home Office, approximately 228 mobile phones are reported stolen in the UK every hour. In addition, mobile phone identity fraud rose by 74 percent in the first half of 2009.

To this end, it is demonstrating three new solutions. The first solution is being dubbed ‘the i-migo’, which is a small device that the user keeps on them. It alerts the user and locks the handset if the handset is taken out of a set range, and is useful if the handset is either stolen or simply misplaced. The i-migo also provides automated data backup using Bluetooth.

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The second solution is being called the ‘tie’ solution, which is a password protection system. Essentially it “electronically matches a handset to a SIM card”. Data on the handset is protected by a combination of password and encryption. If for example the handset is stolen, it cannot be used with another SIM. Also, handset data, such as saved passwords, browsed websites, and contacts, cannot be accessed by criminals. This is useful, as this could be used to defraud victims, by hacking into their online bank accounts for example.

The third and final solution is dubbed ‘TouchSafe’, which uses the same Near Field Communication (NFC) technology currently used by London’s Oyster travel card.

With contactless transactions in the UK predicted to account for £151 billion by 2013, the idea is that this solution will make ‘M-Commerce’ transactions more secure by using a small card worn or carried by the user. To enable the transaction, the user discreetly touches the phone to the card.

“It’s about thinking smarter than criminals,” said David Kester, Alliance member and chief executive, Design Council. “Designers have provided innovations that are one step ahead; new phones are still desirable to consumers but they’re useless to criminals if they’re equipped with these new concepts. The technology behind each of these ideas provides UK companies with promising business opportunities.”

“Security is likely to be an increasingly important issue for consumers in the coming years,” said Steve Babbage, security technologies manager and group chief cryptographer at Vodafone R&D. “These prototypes show real working solutions that could reduce mobile phone crime and make phone users, their identities, their sensitive data and their cash safer.”