Skip to main content

The cell phone revolutionary

By John D. Sutter, CNN
January 31, 2013 -- Updated 1219 GMT (2019 HKT)
Jon Gosier is the founder of Abayima, a tech non-profit that promotes free speech.
Jon Gosier is the founder of Abayima, a tech non-profit that promotes free speech.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Abayima is creating software that could be used to hack SIM cards
  • Sutter: It will be a boon to activists and humanitarians
  • The nonprofit is one of many tackling censorship in the digital era
  • Sutter: Too many countries are using tech to crack down on free speech

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion. He heads the section's Change the List project, which focuses on human rights and social justice. E-mail him at CTL@CNN.com.

(CNN) -- During Uganda's 2011 presidential election, when activists and poll workers tried to text criticisms of the incumbent or the evidence of polling fraud, they found their messages wouldn't go through.

Yet there was no problem sending innocuous messages about the weather or what they had for lunch.

"So much of communication in Africa and many other continents and countries are dependent on mobile providers that could turn against you all of a sudden -- or could go down," Jon Gosier told me in a recent phone interview. He is a man who is likely to change all that.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

In Uganda's case, the government was monitoring text messages sent among activists and poll watchers. Gosier said that was designed to censor dissent.

The lessons: Texts aren't always private and governments are pretty much always nosy.

Those are just a couple of reasons Gosier's work with a new nonprofit called Abayima, Luganda for "guardian," is so crucial to the future of free speech in the developing world.

I like to think of Gosier as the savior of the SIM card, that humble piece of hardware that's stuck in the back of your cell phone and helps it communicate with the network.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



That old school and overlooked piece of technology could help human rights advocates, protesters and relief workers communicate during a crisis -- both by serving as an encrypted tool for passing messages and, potentially, helping cell phones communicate with rogue network towers that go up when governments take down communications or natural disasters crumble the existing infrastructure.

At a time when governments are getting savvier about using technology to stamp out free speech, these sorts of scrappy tech tools are needed more than ever.

Earlier this week, Twitter released a "transparency report" saying government requests for its data increased 19% during the second half of last year. Google has called the rise in government censorship requests alarming. While some countries made gains in 2012 in terms of granting free expression, several, including Italy, Mali and Tajikistan, lost points in a recent ranking from Freedom House.

At a time when governments are getting savvier about using technology to stamp out free speech, these sorts of scrappy tech tools are needed more than ever.
John D. Sutter

Abayima's efforts to fight censorship are the reason it's part of my new CNN Opinion column, which focuses on human rights and social justice issues.

I'm a former technology writer, so some columns will highlight technological innovation. Others will focus on how people are using the Internet to create social change and on human rights crises that aren't making it into mainstream headlines. Last year, I worked with the CNN Freedom Project to produce a story on slavery in Mauritania. I've also covered topics like Internet and gaming addiction in South Korea and prisons in Norway.

Soon, you will see me writing and fronting a project called Change the List. The pilot was on Hawaii, the state with the lowest voter turnout. I reported from there and enlisted people on the Internet to try to help move that state up "the List."

Not that I can take credit (and not that it's an insanely huge victory), but the state tied for 49th place in 2012, instead of 50th. It's not everything, but it's progress.

Anyway, back to SIM cards.

Other people also are catching on to Gosier's concept, too.

"In parts of the world where the Internet is either down or monitored," Justin Ellis writes for the Nieman Journalism Lab, "Abayima would give activists, human rights workers, and journalists the ability to communicate simply by swapping SIMs."

The blog TechPresident calls it a "handy lo-tech solution to fight censorship."

The Knight Foundation recently gave the nonprofit a $150,000 grant.

In a sense, the already-old-news SIM card could take on a new life as the technological grandchild of the fax machine, which helped activists in the Soviet Union communicate with the broader world and each other; or the cassette tape, which helped anti-Apartheid radio hosts in South Africa disseminate their broadcasts to townships.

So the SIM is the new fax machine, but in a good way.

If all of it sounds a little utopian, maybe it is. Gosier is gambling that several systems fall into place to make these types of communication work-arounds possible. But he's betting on the right technologies. There are 4.5 billion mobile phones in the developing world, according to data compiled by USAID, and many of them are "feature phones" -- not-so-smart devices that only make calls and send text messages.

When crisis hits, the phone is the device people turn to first for help.

Gosier's work builds on that of other crisis-technology developers. And its first step is a tiny one: to create software that will make it easier for programmers to control and write to SIM cards. That's harder than it might sound, though, since the good-guy hackers have to use 1s and 0s, not elaborate code, to talk with the hardware SIMs.

With a staff of three, Abayima is working on open-source software, called Open Sim Kit, to do just that. But the group is seeking volunteers to help. If you know anyone who is fluent in machine language, e-mail Gosier at jon@abayima.com.

From there, it could become possible for the SIMs to communicate with rogue cell phone towers -- maybe 10 feet tall -- that could be set up in response to a humanitarian crisis like the Haiti earthquake or a communications blackout like those seen in Egypt, Libya or Syria. Those towers and the altered SIM cards could make it possible for small groups of people to communicate over a network, Gosier said.

"The technology is there," Gosier told me. "The problem has been the phones people have can't talk to the towers. So this open source software we're trying to build would allow you to essentially flash SIM cards and distribute them to people. ... At that point they could talk to whatever networks they want."

Until then, the Open Sim Kit could be used by activists to pass digital information to each other, often by hand. Sasha Kinney, who works with journalists and activists in Kenya as part of a group called Pawa254, said even that simple update "would definitely be something of interest" for journalists trying to evade government censorship.

"The more offline we can get and the more creative we can get the better it is for us," she said. "And everybody's got a cell phone here."

Election monitors in Kenya also plan to use SIM cards to record information about polling places and election-related violence, Gosier said. They'll pass them off to coordinators by hand, who then will take them to a place where the data can be uploaded to the Internet.

In a sense, that makes the SIM card a substitute for paper. But, unlike paper, SIM cards can be encrypted and stored discretely. They're less likely to catch the eyes of authorities.

"Think of it like passing around a thumb drive," he said.

A thumb drive that costs about 25-cents -- and doesn't require a computer.

Which is why the SIM card -- and other affordable, ubiquitous technologies -- is likely to make a comeback as a modern vehicle for free speech.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT