Serial numbers and used goods


in Internet matters, Photography, Security

Quad in St. Cross College, Oxford

One of the great things about the internet is the ability to deal with information that is far too diffuse and voluminous to be processed in other ways. Indeed, that is the principal way in which modern computing qualitatively changes that we are able to do, as opposed to altering the rate at which we can complete a particular task.

Given those characteristics, it surprises me that nobody has come up with a site that catalogs serial numbers for all the kinds of products that include them: from bicycles to cameras to mobile phones. Such a site would allow users to enter that information when they purchased a product. It would then be on hand for warranty claims and in the event of loss or theft. People purchasing such items online, or in used good shops, could check the database to ensure that the products they are buying are not listed as stolen. Like eBay, it is much more efficient to have all these numbers sorted in a single place than to have numerous separate databases. The chances of a person trawling through many sites are low, but one well organized one could get masses of traffic. (See: network effect)

You could even imagine a system where online retailers like eBay are integrated with such a site. The listing for a camera would thus include a serial number linked to an entry in the database. If you bought the item, then received one with a different serial number from the one listed, you would be entitled to lodge a complaint and the seller would get flagged as a potential fraudster. I have personally avoided buying photographic equipment from eBay because I fear that a lot of it may be stolen. Having some simple protections like these in place would make me feel a lot better about it.

PS. For an example of an existing but limited serial number listing, see the stolen equipment registry over at It is unlikely that someone buying a cheap digital camera online will look at that (I knew it existed and it took me some searching around to find the URL), but perhaps someone buying an expensive tilt-shift lens for a medium format camera system will.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan March 24, 2007 at 3:26 pm

If you ever find yourself being offered one of the following by anybody other than me, please let me know:

Apple stuff

14″ G4 iBook – SN: 4H50911AS88
20GB ClickWheel iPod – SN: 2Z6153RGPS9
1GB iPod Shuffle – SN: 4H609YHVRSA

Camera bodies

Canon A510 Digital Camera – SN: 0452108972
Canon EOS Elan 7N Film SLR – SN: (21)89002529
Canon EOS Rebel G Film SLR – SN: (21)61000506


Canon 50mm f/1.8 EF Lens – SN: 6401519F
Canon 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 USM II Lens – SN: 71051782


Nokia 3510i phone – SN: 354347/00/431006/3

Milan March 24, 2007 at 3:51 pm

I don’t have the time, database skills, or access to capital this would require.

If it was anywhere near as successful as it could be, there would be millions of users. That would require management by people with considerable expertise in designing database systems and complex websites.

Still, I think it’s a good idea.

RP March 24, 2007 at 7:08 pm

A site performing some (but not all) of the functions you describe is at

Proved very useful when my phone was stolen recently.

R.K. March 24, 2007 at 3:37 pm

This is an entirely viable business plan. Set it up and sell advertising. Other big categories could be musical instruments, vehicles and vehicle parts, luxury goods and collectables, jewelry and watches, etc.

You just need a catchy name.

Anonymous March 24, 2007 at 9:33 pm

That does sound like a pretty good idea.

Are there any privacy implications involved in linking names with serial numbers?

Milan March 24, 2007 at 9:49 pm

Are there any privacy implications involved in linking names with serial numbers?

Possibly. That said, participation in the site would be voluntary (on the part of people who might list their property). Also, serial numbers only actually need to be revealed publicly if items are stolen.

Milan April 10, 2007 at 8:16 pm

Marx Brothers Swordfish Sketch

Full of security lessons.

Anonymous April 20, 2007 at 5:35 pm
. December 7, 2007 at 10:03 am “was created by police officers to provide the best possible asset tracking and property recovery services in the world. is an innovative tool designed to easily register assets in order to facilitate their recovery if they are lost or stolen. joins forces with online auctions to help identify stolen property.”

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