From Deterring Crime to Improving User Experience: the Importance of Device Identity

As identical as they may be otherwise, every mobile device on earth can be distinguished by an International Mobile Equipment Identity, or IMEI number. All devices with a 3GPP transceiver – smartphones, dongles, modems, wearables, IoT devices and more – are required to bear an IMEI number, as a source of secure, persistent and unique identification. By establishing a reliable identity for billions of such mobile devices, IMEI numbers serve a variety of purposes. They enable the commercial transport of wireless devices, they allow governments to collect taxes appropriately, and empower the mobile industry and law enforcement agencies to deter fraud.

The ecosystem as a whole can thereby ensure order amongst what would otherwise be an ungovernable mass of indistinguishable gadgets. Operators, consumers, retailers, customs officials, insurers, service providers, regulators, even recyclers rely on the ability to establish which precise devices they are dealing with, where they came from, and whether they are legitimately possessed. Customer support, warranty checks, counterfeit detection, compliance and certification all rely on this capability.

The GSMA was authorised in 2000 to allocate TAC (Type Allocation Codes) to all 3GPP devices, and as such can act as gatekeepers and arbiters of identity among mobile devices. The TAC comprises the first eight digits of the IMEI. In 2004 the GSMA was formally appointed the Global Decimal Administrator, meaning it has sole global responsibility for appointing regional bodies to administer TAC. Manufacturers and brand owners must register with a reporting body, depending on where they are: across most of the world this body is TUV-SUD, while in mainland China it is TAF. The first two digits of a TAC number indicate the relevant reporting body, while the remaining six identify the mobile equipment type itself.

Any device found to bear a fraudulent or otherwise improper IMEI can then be blocked from mobile networks by being added to the GSMA IMEI Blacklist. By rendering such devices all but useless, the mobile industry can play a major role in crime deterrence.

Another important role of TAC and IMEI is that it provide as complete a picture as can be achieved of the devices on a given network at any one time, Mobile Network Operators need to know what types of devices are using their networks so they can plan their services accordingly, and ensure the best experience for their customers. Unless operators know how many devices of a particular sort are drawing on their infrastructure, and where, they cannot plan coverage and service provision with enough precision to deliver the seamless user experience that consumers now demand as standard.

With over 10,000 device models launched every year, keeping track of how many are in operation at a given time, and on which networks, is a highly complex affair. Using this information, operators can thereby target their customer offers, aid in remote management of devices and software configuration, and establish how much network resource various devices need.

Discussions of digital identity tend to focus, perhaps understandably, on the people using connected devices. But devices themselves have increasingly complex identities, which all who interact with them need to understand as best they can. The GSMA is pleased to act for the mobile industry in aiding that process worldwide – its successful implementation is in the interests of the entire ecosystem, and indeed beyond.