The Abayima project began back in 2011 with frustration. The Ugandan presidential elections were coming up and people were both excited to make their voices heard, but fearful that what was becoming a heated debate between candidates would turn to something worse. Regardless of where they placed the blame, or which candidate they targeted their ire at, citizens were talking.
In Africa, the most widely accessible form of long distance communication is SMS. In fact, this year the World Bank predicts that mobile penetration will reach 80% across the continent by the end of March. The specific numbers vary up and down per country, but the trend remains the same, Africa is a mobile-first (and some would argue ‘mobile only‘) continent.
Uganda is no different, its citizens utilize mobile networks for paying for goods, researching sports scores, ordering food, checking medical records etc. But the number one use-case for mobile SMS is to simply communicate.
During the days leading up to the election if one were to send a message expressing dislike for the President, the messages strangely never reached their targets. Activist and NGO friends of mine took to Facebook to complain about the mobile networks being slow, only to see that their friends and colleagues were complaining about the same. Only it seemed that most messages were in fact just fine, it was only the ones with a political tone that were ‘lost’. We soon realized what we thought was a typical network problem might be something more deliberate.
As the anxiety of the public grew, journalists both local to the country and abroad began to investigate. Was this a systematic attempt to silence citizen protest? Even worse, it seemed that not only were political messages being blocked, but political messages from the sitting party were being broadcast! “Vote for the guy in the hat” the messages read. Out of context that may not make sense, but if you walked the streets of Kampala on February 2011, they were littered with pamphlets branding the visage of Yoweri Museveni wearing what looked like a cowboy hat.
Meanwhile, a friend of mine who shall remain nameless wanted to send this message, “Chase the guy out of power!” but the message kept failing. He’d call his friend shortly after sending it to them and they hadn’t received it. So instead, as a test, he sent this message instead: “chs gy ut ov pwr!” He called his friend back. This time it had gone through. There seemed to be some sort of monitoring system in place that targeted keywords related to the elections or violence. If an SMS contained words like ‘power’, ‘dictator’, or ‘bullet’, the message was intercepted by the mobile network who would normally just forward them on to their intended recipients.
It wasn’t long before the international and local press discovered what was going on. From a local news outlet, February 18, 2011:
A quick test sending sms messages with the banned words revealed that indeed some of the messages were blocked. Or they just did not go through as is sometimes the case in Uganda.
According to an an internal email , SMS messages with words like “dictator”, “egypt”, “mubarak”, “police”, “bullet”, “Ben Ali” and “people power” will be blocked.
We sent an SMS from an Orange line to an Airtel number and an MTN number with this text: “Favourite movies: The Great Dictator, Police Academy and Bullet with Steve McQueen”. The message did not go through.
As a software developer, when faced with a challenge, my first impulse is to figure out if there is, in fact, a software solution to the problem. If there is, and it’s the best solution, I start thinking of ways to do something about it.
The problem was that something shady was going on with the mobile network millions rely upon as their only means of communication. It’s understandable that the Uganda government would want to suppress messages that might be perceived as calls for violence or that otherwise incited the public, but the exercise illustrated to me just how vulnerable mobile networks were to attack in other scenarios where perhaps the intent is more malicious.
In countries like Egypt, Libya, and Syria the world has witnessed the mass disruption of communication channels. ‘Internet black-outs’ have become a weapon in the war between citizen and state. In our increasingly connected world, this represents a disturbing trend.
There are few solutions that truly ‘circumvent’ mobile networks in such scenarios. A few have attempted mesh-bluetooth networks, hyper-local wifi networks, and even ad-hoc GSM towers. We’re rooting for all those technologies, but we also recognized that more might be possible. After all, feature phones (also known as ‘dumb phones’) don’t have wifi or bluetooth capabilities. And though the cost of smart phones has plummeted in the past few years, the cost of data has not. At least not proportionate to the income of the majority of working individuals in developing countries.
So I asked myself how might it be possible to leverage feature phones as a platform for resilient communication during times of crisis, natural disaster, or power outages. SMS wasn’t the solution, it was part of the problem. When the networks went down, the ability to send messages also went with it. Or did it?
It occurred to me that SIM cards are as ubiquitous as mobile phones themselves. SIM stands for Subscriber Identity Module. Ss the name implies, the technology is used to decouple the phone from the networks that want to serve it. If I place an AT&T SIM in my phone, my phone identifies itself as being ready to use the MTN network; if I change the SIM, I change the network my phone is communicating with. In fact, it’s quite common in developing countries that users swap SIMs frequently to take advantage of the cheapest rates individual networks offer at different times.
So what if the SIM itself became the carrier of content? Sure, you’d lose the ability to instantly communicate with almost the entire planet at the touch of the button, but assuming the networks are down, you’ve lost that anyways. What you gain is the ability to discreetly store and share information on these SIM Cards and use it to distribute information on a very local level. So we began developing Open SIM Kit, an open source solution for writing content to SIM cards.
There are indeed quite a few constraints, the carrying capacity of a SIM is something like 164kbs where we usually talk about modern digital content in Mbs. They are also incredibly difficult to program with most of the SDKs being propretary and kept out of the hands of the general public.
So, for the past two years, I’ve gone back and forth on the idea, working on the project off and on with collaborators who more or less are still involved. This SIM hacking project evolved to become known as Open SIM Kit.
But this is just where Abayima starts. SIM Kit has many other commercial purposes than the scenario described above, as does the open source version. Activists and journalists have many other needs than simply being able to store content to SIM cards and malicious actors have many other ways of suppressing citizen voices. Abayima was established as a constant provider of solutions for problems where communication networks become a barrier.