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
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT