The Department of Telecom is set to roll out the Central Equipment Identity Register (CEIR), a centralised database of the IMEI numbers of all mobile devices in the country “in the coming weeks”, the Indian Express reports. An IMEI number is a unique 15-digit code assigned to every mobile device to help identify it on a network and block it if required. It is often use by law enforcement agencies to track and capture suspects through their phones. Currently, each mobile operator has its own database of IMEI numbers on its network, so if a phone is stolen, it can only be blocked from accessing the network it was on previously. The CEIR will combine all the databases into single, centralised database to enable the blocking of devices across all networks. Once implemented, people who lose their phones will be able to inform the DoT, which will block the IMEI number and prevent it from accessing any cellular network in the country. This, the DoT hopes, will result in fewer phones being stolen.

Is this just for stolen phones?

No. The DoT says the CEIR will also help clamp down on counterfeit phones, which often have fake IMEI numbers – that is, those already assigned to another device. Such phones hamper the the ability of law enforcement agencies to track suspects through IMEI numbers. One of the stated objectives of the CEIR is to “facilitate IMEI-based lawful interception”. But a centralised database of every mobile device in the country raises issues of privacy, data leaks and possible government surveillance, which the DoT hasn’t addressed so far. How will the data be stored and secured, who will have access to it, and what is being done to avoid the leaks and breaches that have plagued Aadhaar data are all unknown at this point. India had 1.16 billion wireless subscribers as of March, according to TRAI.

How the CEIR will work

In line with global practices, the CEIR will comprise three lists – white, black and grey. Devices with IMEI numbers on the white list will be allowed to operate, those on the black list will be blocked, and those on the grey list may be allowed to connect under supervision as they do no conform to standards. The GSM Association (GSMA) maintains a database of all IMEI numbers in use around the world, CEIR will also have access to the global database, allowing it to compare IMEI numbers to identify counterfeit devices. Apart from IMEI numbers, the database will include the following information: IMEI status (white, black grey), reason for status (lost, stolen, etc), date on which the record was created, and date on which it was last updated. Other countries with a similar databases include Australia, the UK, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Turkey, the Express report said.

Objectives of the CEIR

The DoT had first announced its plan to implement the CEIR project in July 2017 and a pilot was later conducted in  Maharashtra. In the interim budget for 2019-20 the government allocated Rs 15 crore to the DoT for the project, the Express report said. Among the stated objectives of the CEIR are:

  • Curtailing counterfeit devices
  • Blocking lost or stolen devices across networks, thus discouraging theft of mobile phones
  • Facilitating IMEI-based lawful interception by authorities
  • Allowing for a mechanism to report lost/stolen devices
  • Maintaining a registry of all equipment identity numbers to facilitate a database of valid devices