NSW using MAC addresses to track stolen phones and tablets

By January, 2016 ICT, State
The NSW government is fighting phone, tablet and computer theft by changing pawnbroker regulation to help people get their devices back.

Don’t fret if your phone, tablet or computer goes missing – you might find it at the local pawn or second-hand shop, thanks to that handy MAC address. Image: Jake Harris

In this day and age, the horrifying thought of losing your mobile phone, tablet or computer is about as bad, if not worse than losing your keys, wallet, or sunglasses.

And if your valuable device that houses your important files, documents and photos is stolen, you may as well say farewell to that mechanical companion you held dear.

But now the New South Wales government is working to put a stop to that problem by giving victims of theft a better chance of getting their device back.

This is being done under changes to the Pawnbrokers and Second-hand Dealers Regulations, which will force pawn shop staff to record media access control (MAC) addresses for mobile phones, tablets and notebook computers, which according to the NSW government are the most commonly stolen electronic devices.

To connect to a wi-fi network, electronic devices have an internal 12-character MAC address. This is assigned by the manufacturer, and unique to the device. The address is usually in the settings menu, but can’t be erased.

Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Victor Dominello strongly urged consumers to record their MAC address, which can be easily located on the device, but also stored on a router they might use at home or at work.

“We are living in the digital age and consumers are purchasing a range of valuable wifi devices. From 1 June this year, a licence condition for pawnbrokers accepting certain electronic goods will be to capture the MAC address and provide it to NSW Police,” Mr Dominello said.

Inspector Tony Heyward of NSW Police’s Operational Information Agency said Police will compare MAC addresses recorded by pawnbrokers against those provided to them by victims of theft. When there’s a match, they can reunite the device with its owner.

Mr Heyward said a total of 19,179 mobile phones were stolen from NSW citizens in 2015.

“During the same period, thieves also stole 7696 notebook computers and 5104 tablets,” Mr Heyward said.

He said the MAC address is such a simple yet powerful crime-fighting tool, and this is yet another way NSW Police and our partner agencies are staying one step ahead of criminals.

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