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
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT