In a bid to curtail the rampant cloning and theft of mobile phones across the country, the Telecom Ministry is ready to roll out a Central Equipment Identity Register (CEIR) — a database of IMEIs, the 15-digit numbers that uniquely identify each mobile device.
Once implemented in the coming weeks, consumers in India whose mobile phones are lost or stolen can inform the Department of Telecom (DoT) via a helpline number after filing a report with police. The DoT can then blacklist the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number, effectively blocking the mobile device from accessing any cellular network in the future. Alongside this, the stated objectives of India’s CEIR specifically refers to facilitating “IMEI-based lawful interception”. India had 1.16 billion wireless subscribers as of March 2019, according to TRAI data.
Another tool with data safety task
While the primary aim of the register is to discourage the theft of mobile phones since those devices with IMEIs in blacklist won’t be allowed to operate, the creation of such a database is also expected to aid the interception of mobile phones by law enforcement agencies. This will put the onus of ensuring that data is not misused on the government.
The DoT had announced its plan to implement this project in July 2017 and a pilot was conducted in the Maharashtra. “The theft and cloning of mobile phones have become a serious problem. The theft of mobile phones is not just a financial loss but also a threat to personal life of the citizens as well as national security. Counterfeit mobile phones in the market are another issue for DoT. A substantial number of counterfeit mobile phones are active in our mobile networks with fake IMEI numbers,” stated a DoT office memorandum detailing the project that was accessed by The Indian Express.
In India, the plan to prepare the registry of mobile identification numbers was first conceived in the National Telecom Policy-2012. A pilot for the project was developed and conducted by state-owned BSNL’s IT Project Service unit in Pune. In the interim budget for 2019-20, the government allocated Rs 15 crore to the DoT for the CEIR project.
In line with global practices, DoT’s identity register will be a database of IMEI numbers that will consist of three lists – white, grey and black. Mobile phones with IMEI numbers in the white list will be permitted for use, while those in the blacklist will be the ones that are reported stolen or lost and will not be allowed to access the network. Devices with IMEI numbers in the greylist will be the ones that do not conform to standards but will be permitted to connect under supervision.
The concept of a central identity register is advocated by the GSM Association (GSMA), a body representing mobile operators, equipment manufacturers, software and internet companies, among other stakeholders in the telecom ecosystem.
Globally, the equipment identity register is in use across various geographies including Australia, the UK, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Turkey among others.
Among the stated objectives of India’s CEIR are the curtailment of counterfeit mobiles, blocking of lost or stolen mobiles across networks thus discouraging theft of mobile phones, maintaining a registry of all equipment identity to facilitate database of valid devices, and facilitate IMEI-based lawful interception. The CEIR will also have access to GSMA’s global IMEI database, allowing comparison of IMEI numbers to identify counterfeit devices.