Xilinx offers mobile phone antitheft feature

Custom logic chip maker, Xilinx Inc. announced Monday that it has a solution to the problem of mobile phone thefts: electronic chips that can be reconfigured over a network to shut down a stolen mobile phone.

The San Jose, California-based company released the latest version of its CoolRunner CPLD (Complex Programmable Logic Device), the CoolRunner-II CPLD, on Jan. 14, but after completing internal tests last week Xilinx has begun to publicly tout the chip's ability to shut down stolen mobile phones, according to Karen Parnell, Xilinx's U.K. product manager for CoolRunner-II.

"We didn't want to make this function in the chip known until we were completely sure it would work. Now we are talking to people like Nokia (Corp). and Ericsson (L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co.) about putting the chip into the handsets that they manufacture," Parnell said.

The CoolRunner-II CPLD is a microchip that can be programmed and reprogrammed over the Internet or wireless networks. If a person's mobile phone is stolen, they could contact their network operator to give them the phone's identifier code which the network operator could then use to send a small signal to reconfigure the phone and shut it down, Parnell said.

"The CPLD is in the phone anyway for things like keypad functions. The smallest device is around US$2 per handset, but it is performing a function that they'd have in the phone anyway, so it's a double benefit to people like Nokia and Ericsson with no extra cost," Parnell said.

A mobile phone is stolen every three minutes in the U.K., according to government statistics released earlier this month. Last year, 710,000 mobile phones were stolen in the U.K., according to the Home Office report published Jan. 8. When the U.K. government published its mobile theft report, network operators agreed that the problem needs to be addressed, but companies like Orange SA stressed in statements that practical solutions had to be developed to combat the problem.

At the time, the Mobile Industry Crime Action Forum argued that the industry as a whole has introduced a number of security features over the years including additional security measures in subscriber identity module (SIM) cards and, in some cases, the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number, which is a 15-digit serial number on each phone.

But both BT Cellnet PLC pointed out that IMEI barring does not disable the handset from being usable. Rather, it simply stops calls from being made on the network that barred it, so the handset itself would remain completely usable and wouldn't lose its functionality.

Parnell agreed that IMEL barring and so-called text message bombs, in which a stolen phone is bombarded with enough SMS (Short Message Service) text messages to cause the phone to shut itself down, are not the most effective way to disable stolen phones. "Disabling a phone via text messages isn't 'safe' in that they are not disabling the phone via hardware but through software. In terms of the CPLD chip, once the chip is reconfigured to erase the functionality of the phone, it can't be reconfigured again unless it gets a special code from the operator. Which also works to the benefit of the owner, because if the phone is returned, a password can be given over the phone to get the device working again but without having to take the device back to the store to get it done," Parnell said.

Xilinx's CoolRunner CPLD has been on the market for about two years, but it was only recently that the company realized the programmable features of the chips could be used to protect the phones. "It's almost like a hidden feature that we've never taken advantage of before," Parnell said.

According to Xilinx, the chip is small enough to be put into any device that has an identifier number, such as PDAs (personal digital assistants) and digital set-top boxes. "As far as we know, no other company is offering the dual functionality on the complex programmable logic device chips. We're pretty sure that what we have is unique," Parnell said.

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