Anonymous Phone

It is frustrating that there is no chance I’ll ever know the real story here.  This article says that they, you know they, are disabling 25 million cell phones in India.  These are generally cheap phones and what they have in common is they lack a unique id number, what’s known as the IMEI.  Twenty five million phones is a lot of phones, and since these phones are presumably owned by the poorest segment of the population I suspect it is a significant taking of their total wealth.  But that’s only one frame I’d like to understand this story in.  For example the story says that 30% of the phones sold in India fall into this category, which means that this is a horrific blow to most of the cell phone retailers.

I entirely dismiss the nominal rational given – i.e. that this is a security move.  If the phone companies can do billing they can do security.  I suspect this is about billing, and not security.  But it might be about operational issues, since I assume that these phones all have an IMEI just not a unique one.  I bet there is a fun geeky story about how the phone industry has been dealing with that.

I suspect that the makers of pricier brand name phones are terrified by the rising tied of off-brand cheap phones.  I wonder if this could be an attempt on their part to bankrupt, or at least raise the barriers to entry, of the smaller producers and their distribution networks.

It’s interesting how anonymous phones have strong synergistic with cheap phones.  In the US if you use cash to buy prepaid phone and it’s minutes you can get a phone that has no ties to your identity.  That falls apart the moment you start leaving a trail of phone records to your social network, but still.  In at least one country in Europe, I’m told, I’d have to provide my passport when I bought a prepaid SIM.  Such regulations create a broad tax on the entire population with assorted consequences.  The nominal rational is always to spin up a story about criminal activity involving a cell phone.  Personally I think we should register our alarm clocks too.

I find the more subtle consequences of requiring non-anonymous phones more interesting.  The way it shapes the industry.  The unit cost of phones and network access are falling so far and fast that the cost of this kind of that kind regulatory requirement becomes a significant portion of the total cost.  At which point the industry’s attention become increasingly focused on these aspects.

There is one more aspect to all this.  As the industry and it’s regulators puzzle out how to manage the phone identity problem they are also puzzling out the extent to which the phone can play a role in the overall identity problem.  This is a reasonably critical point of control around the question of how we license anonymity going forward.

2 thoughts on “Anonymous Phone

  1. James

    They’re supposedly offering stations where you can set a unique IMEI for Rs 199 (~$4.30), or you can DIY. Harald Welte also thinks that the security reason is bogus, mainly because law enforcement tracks by SIM. Perhaps the phone companies want to start blocking stolen phones? MediaTek is apparently the firm behind many Chinese phones, which don’t follow the usual OEM behaviour.

  2. Ben Hyde

    Thanks James, Those links are great!

    The MediaTek link is fascinating, sheds a new light on the whole GPhone dynamic.

    “At last estimate there are about 200, that’s right two hundred companies in China trying to do cell phones. Most of these guys were making MP3 players last year and have little or no idea how to make a cell phone. So almost ALL the technology comes from Mediatek.”

    and I love this part:

    “From what I heard, TI didn’t even support BT song swapping…”

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