September 19, 2020

British Bill to Ban Mods to Cellphone ID Numbers

The British Parliament is now considering a bill that would make it illegal to change the IMEI number on a cell phone. Each phone has a unique IMEI which it uses to identify itself to the cell network; it’s like a serial number for the phone.

If you report your phone stolen, the cell operator blacklists your phone’s IMEI, effectively shutting off the stolen phone. But if the thief can reprogram the IMEI number, then he can keep using the stolen phone. Is this enough to justify banning the practice?

There are two questions we should ask ourselves in evaluating this kind of ban.

First: Is it necessary? Presumably there are already laws against stealing cell phones and against using a stolen phone. The bill only makes sense if those existing laws are somehow deficient. If the deficiency is that the existing laws carry insufficient penalties, then those penalties can be beefed up. If the deficiency is that the existing laws are hard to enforce, then we would still have to ask whether the newly proposed law is somehow easier to enforce.

Second: Does the practice that would be banned have significant legal uses? It is hard to object to a ban on practices that only criminals engage in, but if there are legitimate and legal uses of it then we should be much more reluctant to ban it. And we really have to try our hardest to think of legal uses – it is all too easy to ignore unusual or novel uses that would turn out to have great value in the future.

Based on my very limited knowledge, it looks like the ban on IMEI modifications may pass this two-part test, and so may be good policy. But I’m happy to hear any counterarguments.