Using Wireless Technologies to Fight Camera Theft

If every digital camera contained a SIM or RFID module, it could log into its manufacturer's product-authentication database when switched on and, if stolen, report its whereabouts and disable itself until returned to its rightful owner.
By Dieter Uckelmann, with contributions from Mark Harrison
May 23, 2011Crime stories are fascinating and raise attention—so let us start with one. At the end of this past March, a burglar stole my camera equipment. The theft represented a financial loss for me—but, more than that, a sudden disruption to how I spend my leisure time. As I am a member of several Web communities focused on photography, I published a list of the stolen equipment and discovered that Web 2.0 actually works. A community member referred me to a Web site operating in his home country in Eastern Europe, on which my stuff was listed for sale! He actually contacted the local police, but they had no interest in following up on the matter. So I called the German police, who showed great interest, yet lacked two important capabilities: agility and the ability to execute (in Eastern Europe) on the crime. I assume they filed a high-quality report and closed the case.

I began to question the value of identifying objects (such as my camera equipment) and visibility on the Internet of Things, if the ability to react accordingly in a timely manner is absent. (Could this be the reason why the Internet of Things is still far from becoming a reality?) I contacted the director of the Cambridge Auto-ID Lab, Mark Harrison, with whom I share an interest in the Internet of Things, as well as a common hobby—photography. Consequently, a discussion began about how the Internet of Things could be used to provide a (future) solution to the problem. Cameras, as well as lenses, have a unique identifier, which is provided as human-readable text and sometimes as 2-D bar codes printed on the outside of an item's housing. Such identifiers could additionally be stored on a chip within a camera or lens.


The IDs could be communicated as soon as a camera was connected to the Internet—which would likely happen, since the easy sharing of pictures and online printing is one of the major advantages of digital photography. If the camera were reported as stolen, a remote locking command could deactivate that camera, as well as the connected lens. It is even possible to consider direct online connections between the camera and the Internet of Things, through embedded SIM modules similar to the SIM cards used in mobile phones. RFID is an optional technology that could be employed instead of SIM-based connections. However, since RFID read points are still far from being ubiquitous, a SIM-based approach would be more promising at this time.

From this general idea, Mark and I developed some requirements. There should be the capability for the legitimate owner of a stolen item to remotely and reversibly lock that device, so that it would be rendered inoperable except for the display of a message on the screen to indicate that the property was stolen and should be handed over to the police. There would also need to be support for legitimate second-hand sales, as well as for the legitimate transfer of ownership from the original purchaser to a new owner—and from that individual to the subsequent owner down then line. This means that the locking key associated with a device's particular unique ID number should be updated upon each legitimate change of ownership.
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