It's become somewhat common knowledge that most all mobile devices can be tracked, leading to situations where police are kicking down the wrong doors while tracing stolen iPhones, or situations where Twitter feeds can help prompt the triangulation of the cell locations of carjacking victims. Essentially, there are many modes of tracing stolen or misplaced devices, the most popular being the use of apps like Apple's Find my iPhone - but Apple itself typically doesn't like to get involved beyond this, and offers warranty replacement for stolen of misplaced devices. Apple cites a lack of a centralized tracking system for the phones, and plainly doesn't want to have to confront thieves.
This lack of centralization is about to change, with four major carriers planning to align with the Federal Communications Commission to build a lost phone database. The providers involved, including Verizon, Sprint Nextel, AT&T and T-Mobile, have all agreed to participate in the database. The New York City Police Department reports that cell phones account for 80% of all electronics thefts - and the database, which will be complied by the companies involved, will work to trace the stolen phones and then deactivate voice and messaging service. Law enforcement officials hope that phones that can't function if stolen will deter crime. The carriers will put together their respective databases within the next six months, and have them integrated within a year. Some smaller carriers are also said to be joining the movement, and the database will be available to other countries who seek to join.
The mention of other governments getting involved seems integral, because it's logical to just sell a stolen device to a different country - if AT&T were to block service to an iPhone that was registered as stolen in the U.S., a savvy thief could fully unlock it, sell it to an eBay user in Mexico, where they could pop in Digicel network SIM card in Cancun, and be none the wiser. Still, it can be assumed that a lot of stolen phones aren't gaffled with so much thought - especially around Cancun. The new plan seeks to block the service of phones grabbed from bars, left on beaches, etc. The simple notion of "phone don't work" would likely deter a large amount of mobile device thefts.