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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

IMEI-Database: Nigeria absence lamentable


Features of the week:

The missing of Nigeria and her telecom operators in the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) database hosted by GSMA, has become worrisome given the number of stolen phones in the country daily, and bad image thereof may dampen the nation’s effort in curbing telecommunications related crimes, reports REMMY NWEKE.

Introduction:
RECENTLY, reports have it that Nigeria is missing in the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) database (IMEI-DB). The IMEI-database is maintained by the umbrella body of mobile operators worldwide, the Global System for Mobile Association (GSMA) with offices in London and Ireland.

Nowadays, GSM and Third Generation (3G) devices are known worldwide to be very attractive to thieves and since year 2002, it has become imperative to use IMEI-DB to combat handset theft, unfortunately neither Nigeria as a leading country in the GSM market nor any of the four GSM operators has expressed interest in being part of the database, according to GSMA.

This development came in the wake of the recent pronouncement by industry regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to ensure that the use of stolen handsets on the GSM networks in the country would be stopped in the near future.

This means that the estimated 35 million mobile handsets currently in use in the country are not safe and liable to be reused in any part of the world if stolen, just as they may never be recovered if lost.

What is IMEI?
IMEI is an exclusive 15-digit code used to identify an individual mobile device when it is used on GSM phone network. On the other hand, GSMA, founded 20 years ago, is a global trade association representing over 700 GSM mobile phone operators across 217 territories and countries globally, in addition to having in its membership spread over 180 manufacturers and suppliers as associates.

Investigations by Champion Infotel revealed that none of the GSM operators in the country has an IMEI affiliation with GSMA’s database, which is a global central database containing basic information on serial number ranging into billions of GSM and Third Generation (3G) devices. These include mobile phones, laptop data cards that are used worldwide on GSM networks.

This step by GSMA and manufacturers is to ensure that no two devices are made with the same IMEI, thus making it unique to each GSM device. And with this database, GSMA stores some basic information associated with the IMEI, which includes the manufacturer’s name and the model identifier of the associated handset and some of its technical capabilities such as frequency bands supported by the handset and the handset power class.

For this reason, network operators use the information therein in IMEI-DB to determine what types of devices are being used by their customers and associated features.

Black list:
In addition, the database supports what industry experts described as ‘black list,’ which is a catalogue of IMEIs’ that are associated with GSM or 3G devices currently denied service on mobile networks because they were suspected to have been reported loss, stolen, faulty or unsuitable for use.

Also, this kind of database hitherto known as the Central Equipment Identify Registrar (CEIR), acts as a central system for network operators to share their individual ‘black lists’ which means that any device denied service in view of being black-listed by a network will not work on other networks even if the Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) card in the device is altered.

In accordance with GSMA, everyday since 1996 the IMEI-DB has taken all the black lists from different operators around the globe and added same into one worldwide black list, pointing out that when an Equipment Identify Registrar (EIR) is connected to the database, it downloads the latest global black list for its own use locally.

GSMA informed that out of its 700 core operator-members from 217 countries, only a dismal 40 operators out of 20 countries are currently connected to IMEI-DB with only two coming from Africa, namely South Africa and Kenya. Other connected countries are Belgium, Chile, Cyprus, Czech, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and United Kingdom.

Six years of GSM in Nigeria:
It would be recalled that in year 2001, GSM premiered in the nation’s telecommunications sector following an auction for digital mobile license, which initially was given to three operators, namely MTN Nigeria, Econet now Celtel and M-Tel and subsequently the Second National Operator (SNO), Globacom in 2003. This auction was tagged most successful and transparent in the history of Nigeria. This also paved the way for several Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), estimated to be over 60 billion as at first quarter of 2007, just as Nigeria is currently rated as the fastest growing mobile communications market on the continent and second to India globally.

Reacting to this report and why none of the operators, especially on GSM or the country made effort in engaging GSMA mostly on its IMEI database, the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC) of NCC, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, at an interactive session in Lagos, said that though there is no feasible effort as of first quarter of 2007 in this respect, but that does not mean that NCC is not worried or doing anything about it.

He explained that it would be difficult for one operator to engage GSMA database on IMEI in the spirit of curbing mobile devices theft when others are not ready, adding that it must be holistic for it to be a success. He noted that NCC is waiting till such a time when the operators are ready infrastructurally before engaging GSMA on this issue.

GSMA decries Nigeria’s absence:
Responding to the Nigeria’s missing in its IMEI database, GSMA decried the absence, describing the situation as lamentable, according to the Director, Fraud and Security at GSMA, Mr. James Moran. “At present, there are no Nigerian operators connected to the IMEI database and I am not aware that any of them has any plans to do so,” he said.

Mr. Moran also said that efforts to contact Nigerian GSM operators in this respect in the past following media reports on increase of stolen mobile phones did not yield any fruit, even with the efforts of the regulatory body, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).

As said by him, efforts to join IMEI-DB heightened in year 2004 but did not last long as none of the operators eventually came up to endorse relevant papers officially, saying, “In 2004 it appeared that barring of stolen handsets was on the agenda and there was an expectation that the operators would commit to the initiative by signing a binding agreement. However, to the best of my knowledge nothing ever came of this.”

Mr. Moran also expressed disposition of GSMA to accommodate any of the willing operators to join in the fight against handset theft, emphasising, “GSMA is always willing to help operators combat handset theft and we are willing to work with, and support the efforts of the Nigerian operators if they wish to undertake any positive initiatives.”

Joining IMEI database is free:
He also said, GSMA has engaged operators in many countries around the world in relation to various initiatives to combat handset theft and he is ever-happy to offer the same help to the Nigerian operators, so as to allow them to benefit from the experience of GSMA expertise, noting that GSMA is well placed to help its members with the sharing of stolen handset data by offering the use of the IMEI database, that was introduced in 1996 to provide a facility to which GSMA members could connect to upload and download stolen handset data.

“We believe the IMEI database is a suitable vehicle to host a Nigerian national database and we have provided IMEI data sharing facilities to operators in many countries free of charge. We are currently working with operators in a host of other countries to ensure that they also have the necessary tools to allow them use the IMEI database,” the security chief said.

He underscored the resolve of GSMA to offer the Nigerian operators the opportunity to use the IMEI database as a facility to exchange stolen handset data and more willing to support them to establish a suitable solution for combating handset theft with maximum efficiency and minimum cost.

“We do not impose any sanctions on operators that fail to take remedial action as handset initiatives tend to be voluntarily undertaken in individual markets by industry working in partnership with government and law enforcement,” he informed.

GSMA encourages operators:
Mr. Moran explained that GSMA, recognises that unsupported deployment of EIR’s by member networks is of limited value in terms of effectiveness in combating handset theft. Although EIR deployment, and connection to the IMEI Database, could help, “it is critical that other parties who have an interest in combating handset theft can engage fully to implement appropriate crime prevention measures.”

He further gave some specifications mapped out by GSMA to encourage operators to include implementation by handset manufacturers, of which the industry agreed technical principles to be used in preventing the change of handset IMEI’s, use of the industry initiated IMEI reporting and correction process by handset manufacturers and operators to report and correct identified IMEI security weaknesses.

GSMA, he also said, assists in thorough investigation of mobile phone-theft related crimes by law enforcement agencies and the maintenance of appropriate statistics to measure the scale of the problem and to monitor progress made, maintaining that the introduction of specific legislation by national regulators/governments to criminalize the reprogramming of IMEI’s such as what has happened in France and the UK and is under consideration in a number of jurisdictions.

“It is hoped that a holistic range of measures, such as those listed above, will complement the deployment of EIR’s/CEIR and greatly enhance the value of each of the other measures in an effort to reduce handset theft related crime. Where this has happened, like the UK, handset theft rates dropped significantly in a short period of time,” he submitted.

Viability of managing anti-theft scheme by OPS:
Alternatively, reports have it that the Federal Government has planned to introduce an anti-theft scheme to be managed by a member of the organised private sector (OPS).

It was also gathered that NCC was overwhelmed by several firm’s expression of interest for the proposed scheme.

One of the top bidders is a United States-based firm, IDSV International, led by a Nigerian telecommunications specialist, Mr. Prince Uchendu, even as it was gathered that the core reason behind such motive was to avoid duplication of efforts by individual operators.

NCC boss, Dr. Ndukwe was recently quoted as saying, “A common platform would ensure that interoperability issues were easily overcome and stolen phones could be tracked and blocked easily across the networks of operators.”

According to him, each of the operators would have the software for monitoring mobile phones installed in the networks, the theft monitor cum administrator would keep a database of stolen phones, which would be made available to the networks whenever a phone is reported stolen.

Conclusion:
Six years down the lane of the new phase of telecommunications development, industry analysts though endorsed the need to get Nigeria on the right track. This they argued has become imperative given the image the nation has gotten through other sub-sectors criminal tendencies, such as from the financial and banking sectors.

Some stakeholders were of the opinion that by handing over the administration of anti-theft solution as being tinkered such as on the IMEI-database, would amount to exposing subscribers data to a third party which of course, in the first instance was not bargained for with the operators and may ignite some litigation and protests by both individuals and telecom consumers advocacy groups in the country.

In addition, it was strongly believed that one reason the operators seem not keen about involving themselves in the IMEI database for now was to optimise their penetration of which stolen phones seem to play key role; either stolen within the country or off shore, could be easily disposed in Nigeria at a very cheap prices, even as those unblocking stolen phones would form another battle ground for advocates of anti-theft schemes.

Noteworthy is that the mobile phone belonging to the 2006 murdered politician, Chief Funso Williams, was discovered at far away north from the west, where he was murdered and having been stolen and resold for N12,000, about half of its market price.

Although the act of deception is gradually creeping into the mobile communications in the country and it is believed that the earlier the nation through a collaboration between the GSM operators and the regulator, NCC join the IMEI database, the better image would be fashioned for Nigeria, even as it is expected that this would further boost investment and strengthen the nation’s seriousness in repositioning her from the corrupt and criminal bedevilled domain.


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