Information Warfare: The Curse Of The Anonymous SIM

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June 6, 2017: Thailand joined a growing number of nations that are making it mandatory for cell phone companies to verify who users of SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards are. To do this Thais buying SIM cards must now present their ID cards, which now use fingerprints as well as photos, into special reader devices that verify the ID. The new measures initially (as of June 1 st ) apply to the three southern provinces (Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani) and parts of adjacent Songkhla province. Owners of existing SIM cards in those areas have until October to register their SIM cards or have them deactivated. Temporary SIMs, popular with tourists as well as terrorists and criminals in general, are also being modified to make them easier to track. This proposal is actually quite popular with the cell phone companies because this feature provides advertisers and marketing firms’ opportunities to increase sales.

The cause of all this SIM card scrutiny is the growing problem with terrorists and all sorts of criminals using unregistered SIMs to trigger bombs or for criminal activities in general. This is not a problem unique to any nation suffering from Islamic terrorists and is one of the unpleasant side effects of cell phones.

The unregistered SIMs was perceived as a major problem after 2001 and governments began to ban, or at least try to ban, the use of unregistered (anonymous) SIMs. In most parts of the world you can move your cell phone service from one phone to another by simply removing the small (25x14mm) SIM "card" from one phone and inserting it in another. SIM cards can also be bought just for the minutes stored on them, and these "anonymous" SIMs are were immediately recognized as very useful by gangsters and terrorists. Security forces soon found Islamic terrorists not only using anonymous SIMs in cell phones to set off bombs but also using lots of unregistered SIMs to avoid efforts to track users. This soon became clear because SIM cards often survived the explosion and they were almost always unregistered and when tracked back to the seller were found to be part of major purchases of SIM cards. Raids on terrorist hideouts often found hundreds of anonymous SIM cards and records indicating that regularly buying thousands at a time was considered an essential expense for outlaw groups. In many nations with an Islamic terrorist problem it was found that over ten percent of cell phones used anonymous SIMs.

These SIM card security efforts are always difficult to implement. For example in early 2016 Nigeria took extreme measures to a force a South African firm (MTN, one of the largest cell phone companies in Africa) to disconnect five million unregistered cell phone SIM cards as ordered in 2015. Nigeria threatened large fines ($250 million worth) but MTN thought local courts would not uphold such fines. MTN guessed wrong and Nigeria proceeded to shut down local MTN outlets that were found to have sold unregistered SIMs. In Nigeria other companies did disconnect over ten million illegal SIMs but MTN thought they could beat this in court. Because the SIM card shutdown order was mainly directed at a murderous Islamic terror group (Boko Haram) and not just a lot of lesser criminals the Nigerian courts agreed with the government and MTN was forced to comply and pay a somewhat smaller fine. This sent an unpleasant message to all cell phone companies.

Yet getting cell phone companies to cooperate on the SIMs issue is not the end of the problem. Even when the government is able (via changes in local laws and/or court rulings) to disconnect unregistered SIMs criminals got around that by paying others to buy registered SIMs and then tell police the cards were stolen. That raised the cost of being anonymous for criminals but did not stop the use of anonymous SIMs.

 

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