India blocks service to millions of handsets

India blocks service to millions of handsets

Summary: Mobile phones without a valid identification number were blocked in India on Monday as part of a government security drive

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TOPICS: Security
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India has blocked service to all mobile phones without a valid identity code, as part of anti-terrorist measures being implemented by the Indian government.

On Monday, any handset without a valid International Mobile Equipment Identity (Imei) code had its connection cut off, according to the Indian Cellular Association (ICA), which represents mobile operators in the country. The mobile industry is complying with a government directive that arose after discussions between Indian security agencies and the Indian Department of Telecommunications, the ICA added.

The Imei, a 15-digit number printed inside a phone, can be used to identify a particular device on an operator's network, meaning it can be tracked by security services. In addition, network providers can use the absence of an Imei to cut off a phone.

"We have to abide by the requirements of national security, and help to create a legal, ethical market," Pankaj Mohindroo, ICA president, told ZDNet UK on Tuesday. "As an industry, we need to respond to national security concerns."

The ban, which came into effect on Tuesday, is the result of an Indian government directive that became law in October 2008, according to Mohindroo. The implementation of the directive was delayed until March, then June, and finally November, so mobile operators could put in place the technology necessary to block phones with no Imei, an invalid Imei, or an Imei that consists solely of zeroes.

Owners of handsets had until Monday to validate their Imei number or purchase a fresh Imei number. About 13 percent of handsets in India are unbranded Chinese imports, according to a report in The Times of India, and these often have a common Imei. 

The number of handsets that had been affected by the blocks was difficult to calculate, said Mohindroo. A BBC report on Tuesday estimated that 25 million phones were affected, but Mohindroo said that due to the complexity and size of the Indian mobile-phone system, the ICA would not estimate.

"The '25 million' number is based on an estimate that five to eight percent of subscribers would be affected," said Mohindroo. "But there are all kinds of numbers floating around. It's impossible to give a number."

Mohindroo said the directive would mean more genuine handsets on the market, and benefits for consumers such as after-sales.

Topic: Security

Tom Espiner

About Tom Espiner

Tom is a technology reporter for ZDNet.com. He covers the security beat, writing about everything from hacking and cybercrime to threats and mitigation. He also focuses on open source and emerging technologies, all the while trying to cut through greenwash.

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2 comments
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  • Silence of the IMEIs?

    We discuss this here: http://thecsr.blogspot.com/2009/12/30-million-to-go-silent-in-india.html and with greater detail here:
    http://thecsr.blogspot.com/2009/04/like-fertilizer-in-your-baby-food.html

    Keep in mind the numbers 35-30 million are somewhere between estimates and guesses. It will regardless be interesting to see how they all make it through the 1600 GIIs.
    jlackey
  • Fake IMEIs

    I wrote on this topic first here:
    http://thecsr.blogspot.com/2009/04/like-fertilizer-in-your-baby-food.html

    and later here:
    http://thecsr.blogspot.com/2009/12/30-million-to-go-silent-in-india.html

    The Most Common IMEI in the World - 135790246811220

    What?

    Yeah, GSM phones all have supposedly unique identifiers, a lot like a MAC address for Ethernet. These unique identifiers are called IMEIs, for International Mobile Equipment Identity. I said supposedly because they are not unique. Many Chinese black/grey market handsets sold in India with MediaTek chipsets ended up with the IMEI 135790246811220. Additionally, the instructions on the web for using a MediaTek tool to reassign the IMEI include the IMEI 135790246811220 as an example, so people who don't really know what they are doing just copy by rote and use that IMEI. Lots of these phones in India with lots of SIM swaps. This particular dupe was showing up 40,000 times an hour at one operator in India!
    jlackey