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Stuffing mobile thieves the Judge Dredd way

Antitheft chip that kills phones remotely

Custom chip maker Xilinx announced yesterday Monday that it has a solution to the problem of mobile phone theft: electronic chips that can be reconfigured to shut down a stolen mobile phone.

Mobile firms recently eschewed other methods of remotely stuffing stolen phones because the methods weren't properly effective. Xilinx thinks its chip will do the trick.

The firm's latest version of its CoolRunner CPLD (Complex Programmable Logic Device), the CoolRunner-II CPLD, wasn't developed for this purpose, but after completing internal tests last week Xilinx has begun to publicly tout the chip's ability to shut down stolen mobile phones.

"We didn't want to make this function in the chip known until we were completely sure it would work. Now we are talking to people like Nokia and Ericsson about putting the chip into the handsets that they manufacture," Parnell said.

The CoolRunner-II is a microchip that can be programmed and reprogrammed over the internet or wireless networks. If a person's mobile phone is stolen, they could contact their network operator to give them the phone's identifier code which the network operator could then use to send a small signal to reconfigure the phone and shut it down, Parnell said.

A mobile phone is stolen every three minutes in the UK, according to Home Office statistics released earlier this month &mdash 710,000 mobile phones were stolen in the UK last year.

When the government published its mobile theft report this month, network operators agreed that the problem needs to be addressed, but companies like Orange stressed in statements that practical solutions had to be developed to combat the problem.

At the time, the Mobile Industry Crime Action Forum argued that the industry as a whole has introduced a number of security features over the years including additional security measures in SIM (subscriber identity) cards and, in some cases, the IMEI (international mobile equipment identity) number, a 15-digit serial number on each phone.

But BT Cellnet (now called O2) pointed out that IMEI barring does not disable the handset. Rather, it simply stops calls from being made on the network that barred it, so the handset itself would remain completely usable and wouldn't lose its functionality.

Parnell agreed that IMEL barring and so-called text message bombs, in which a stolen phone is bombarded with enough text messages to cause the phone to shut itself down, are not the most effective way to disable stolen phones.

"Disabling a phone via text messages isn't 'safe' in that they are not disabling the phone via hardware but through software. In terms of the CPLD chip, once the chip is reconfigured to erase the functionality of the phone, it can't be reconfigured again unless it gets a special code from the operator."

This also works to the benefit of the owner, because if the phone is returned, a password can be given over the phone to get the device working again, without having to take the device back to the store to get it done," Parnell said.


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