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Monday, May 20, 2002

User photo ID to ward off cellphone thieves
Hannington Osodo

Modisakgosi has found a way to print a photograph, name and telephone number in the background of a cellphone screen without interfering with its memory or electrical system, SMS messages or any other screen functions. 

SOUTH African Edward Modisakgosi claims to have invented a security feature that can help mobile phone users combat rampant theft worldwide. He is now in talks to licence it in a variety of countries.

Frustrated after losing three mobile phones to thieves, the 37-year-old Modisakgosi took 18 months and used a salvaged computer at his home in a poor residential district of Johannesburg to come up with the idea.

Modisakgosi said he can place a mobile phone owner's photograph, name and phone number on the background of a phone screen, without interfering with its memory or electrical systems or any other functions.

"To install your image on the phone takes 30 minutes and costs 100 rand ($9.84). The image cannot be erased. To get rid of it, one must destroy the screen, which costs 500 rand, or half the cost of the phone, to replace," he told Reuters.


Modisakgosi had held jobs as a photocopier maintenance man and insurance salesman and was unemployed when he came up with his invention. He got a computer from old stocks a company was getting rid of, and his computer-savvy friends upgraded it for him.

Now he hopes his invention will make him rich. South Africa, which has about 10 million cellphone users, has one of the highest crime rates in the world and phone thefts are commonplace, the police says.

Bushie Engelbrecht, deputy provincial police commissioner for crime intelligence and detection in Johannesburg, said the security feature could reduce cellphone-related crime in Africa.

"I got gooseflesh just looking at this concept," Engelbrecht told Reuters. "I absolutely believe it is going to assist us, the police, and the community."

Trial is over

After hearing about the security device on local television, marketing consultant Axel Von Gerlarch visited Modisakgosi and offered to help him sell the product internationally under the name Cell-pic.

Von Gerlarch, now Cell-pic's marketing manager, arranged financing of up to 2,00,000 rand ($19,790) to get "proper testing of the security device", Modisakgosi said.

So far, Cell-pic has installed 1,000 images on mobile phones in South Africa.

The product is now emerging from its trial stage and has already met with keen interest in South Africa and other countries, Von Gerlach said.

"We are talking to some businessmen in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and in China about them buying rights to the product, for which we still have copyright," he said.

The invention is registered as a copyright by the trade department, and Modisakgosi and Gerlach are still in the process of obtaining a formal patent, he said. "We are not concerned about anyone stealing the idea. We are in the process of formalising the registration (of a patent)," he said.

Modisakgosi said he was not concerned about running into problems with mobile phone manufacturers, because he believed these companies could customise his invention in future.

Kenyan businessman Charles Wachira expected the security feature to be a hit in his country: "This means nobody will be interested in buying stolen cellular phones. It is a huge invention."