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We’re honored to be the recipients of the Knight Foundation’s generous support for our new Abayima initiative! The press this morning has been fantastic as well [Link 1, Link 2, Link 3, Link 4].

But what is Abayima? In a post this morning on the Abayima Blog, I recounted the history of the project:

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.

Kampala (Uganda) - Museveni Propaganda

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.

Internet Blackouts

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?

knight.003

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.

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.

We’re excited to have received early support of the Knight Foundation and IndigoTrust as with out them this would have been far more difficult endeavor to pursue.

For the past several months I’ve been working on a project for moving data around when there’s no internet.  I talked a bit about this at the Power of Information conference earlier this year in London, but I thought I’d share more here.

Abayima applies cold war tactics to mobile data storage and distribution.

Abayima targets anyone living in oppressive, restrictive, societies around the globe. It was inspired by the information networks during the most recent Uganda elections and the Arab Spring — both situations where electronic communication networks were compromised (or complete shutdown) by authorities.

As a strategy it will work in any country where there are low-end mobile phones, the most accessible communication technology on the planet. As a technology, it works for groups who wish to disseminate messages discretely in a way that mimics one of the oldest forms of communication,  pen and paper.

The History

Two recent events inspired the development of Abayima. In 2011 the internet in Egypt was shut off, preventing activists and dissidents from communicating with each other or the outside world. A few months later, in Uganda, during the reelection campaign for President Yoweri Museveni, the mobile carriers were compromised and monitored for voices of dissent. This allowed for the filtering of text messages that were deemed unacceptable, while the same networks were used to spread electronic propaganda in the form of SMS and MMS messages to the public.

As a Strategy

This conversation shaping using communication technologies for propaganda echoes the intimidation and propaganda techniques used by the German and Soviet governments during World War II and by many other oppressive governments since.  Anyone with two phones and a sim can do this right now but to do it more efficiently we’ll be developing an application to support this type of message storage.

Abayima is largely a strategy for moving messages sans telecom infrastructure. It’s also a toolkit which assumes electronic communication via internet or mobile carrier has been compromised completely and allows activists and journalists to use the SIM cards themselves to publish or distribute information freely.

As a Product

Rather than rely upon high-tech infrastructure, Abayima relies upon centuries old information networks inspired by the Jewish resistance, the underground slave escape routes in the United States, Navajo code talkers, the war scouts of Sparta etc. There is a long lineage of using no or low technical means of encryption to protect sensitive information.

As a technology Abayima is a way of storing information on SIM chips which can then be placed in a mobile phone on the other end to be read.

Examples:

  • A journalist writes several sensitive details and stores them to a SIM that isn’t used for texting, but to share the message with only a designated party whom they would hand deliver it to. Because the SIM isn’t used for calls, the only way to intercept the message is physically.
  • A group of activists could send messages between two locations using a ‘runner’. When the runner arrives he hands off the SIM which will contain messages for the recipient.
  • SIM cards are as ubiquitous as mobile phones and its generally understood how to use them across most populations. Thus, the SIM card itself could be a publishing/distribution mechanism for content of all types.
  • For advanced users with access to higher-end technology the messages could be written using a computer and our software, encrypted with software, and stored on the SIM. The receiver would need technology with a key to decrypt the message.  This adds a layer of protection against interception as it becomes necessary to crack the encryption algorithm first.

F.A.Q.

Why not use thumb drives?

Because thumb drives require two computers on either side, a level of infrastructure that exceeds the means of the poorest. The number of people with low end mobile phones, globally, far exceeds the number with access to computers.

Can’t these messages be intercepted?

Yes. Electronic communication like SMS can be ‘sniffed’ while passing through the air.  Paper with notes can be stolen.  People can be tortured to extract information.  There will always be a way to intercept communication.

That said, SIM cards are small, easy to destroy or swallow, and can’t be read without some sort of assistive device. Abayima (the product) can be used to encrypt whatever message is contained, adding another layer of protection.

Aren’t there better ways to distribute information?

Yes. This publishing method is more akin to pen and paper communication. By design, it is inefficient. But it’s highly practical if you have limited resources as it leverages local infrastructure. This is intended to be carried out in ‘last ditch’ scenarios where the more efficient methods of delivery like email, instant messaging, text messaging, VOIP or others have either been compromised by hackers, are being monitored by authorities, or completely disabled.  It’s a work around when the alternative is no long-distance communication at all.

What is a sneakernet? 

It refers to using your feet (sneakers) to move information around, particularly data storage devices. The implication is that though there are clearly other ways to access that information, the sneakernet is the fallback.

Visit the project at http://abayima.com