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Cellphones Crime Security Technology

Thieves in South Africa Hit Traffic Lights For SIM Cards 181

Posted by Soulskill
from the proceed-with-caution dept.
arisvega writes "Some 400 high-tech South African traffic lights are out of action after thieves in Johannesburg stole the mobile phone SIM cards they contain. JRA (Johannesburg Road Agency) said it is investigating the possibility of an 'inside job' after only the SIM card-fitted traffic lights were targeted. The cards were fitted to notify JRA when the traffic lights were faulty. 'We have 2,000 major intersections in Johannesburg and only 600 of those were fitted with the cards,' the agency's spokesperson Thulani Makhubela told the BBC. 'No-one apart from JRA and our supplier knows which intersections have that system.' The thieves ran up bills amounting to thousands of dollars by using the stolen cards to make calls."
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Thieves in South Africa Hit Traffic Lights For SIM Cards

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  • 'No-one apart from JRA and our supplier knows which intersections have that system.'

    That's their defense regarding how they managed this not to happen? Security through obscurity? Really? Does people never learn?

    • Well jeez, you don't suppose the boxes in question might also have been, y'know, locked, like the other species of utilities boxes that reside in the vicinity of intersections?
      • by Vlado (817879) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @05:55AM (#34813128) Homepage

        That often doesn't matter in South Africa.

        Lots of traffic lights (called "robots" over there) are often times out of commission, because people are stealing power cables for copper that they contain. If they go to trouble of getting into powered cables under ground do you really think a small thing like a lock is going to matter?

    • by nedlohs (1335013) on Saturday January 08, 2011 @07:52PM (#34809256)

      No that's the rational for suspecting an inside job and hence investigating that angle.

      You would think it would be a no-brainer to have the SIM cards on some sort of custom phone plan which only allows calls to a fixed set of numbers, though.

      • by habig (12787)

        You would think it would be a no-brainer to have the SIM cards on some sort of custom phone plan which only allows calls to a fixed set of numbers, though.

        My thoughts when hearing this story on the radio the other day:

        "You can produce modified traffic lights that can do all this cool stuff, but then you can't lock the sim cards to that particular bit of proprietary hardware? Whiiiiiffffffff"

        But the "change the calling plan" idea could be done quickly after the fact and save the rest of their installed bas

        • by jack2000 (1178961)
          It should be possible to triangulate where a phone is with a stolen simcard. If several cells don't overlap the phone at least you know the neighborhood.
          Stealing sim cards is a no-brainer.
          • You'd think these high tech intersections would have cameras for red light and speeding violations. Next time they might want to allocate some of the budget to CCTV as well. :)

          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            by Anonymous Coward

            It should be possible to triangulate where a phone is with a stolen simcard. If several cells don't overlap the phone at least you know the neighborhood.

            Stealing sim cards is a no-brainer.

            Triangulation isn't as easy as it sounds. First, to be accurate you'll need a minimum of three towers in range, and in real life application you probably will need closer to 5 or 6 to get a real-time fix on a location.

            On paper triangulation is simple; draw three circles with radius equal to the signal strenght, and your intersection point is the origin. But this is an ideal case. In real life signal strength will vary quite a bit just by moving around or changing the direction of the antenna. So for each of

        • by mpe (36238)
          "You can produce modified traffic lights that can do all this cool stuff, but then you can't lock the sim cards to that particular bit of proprietary hardware? Whiiiiiffffffff"
          But the "change the calling plan" idea could be done quickly after the fact and save the rest of their installed base, that's even easier.


          Even if the installers did not record which SIM goes with which IMEI the network will have this information.
      • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Saturday January 08, 2011 @08:04PM (#34809424) Journal
        I'm not sure why they were provisioned for voice at all. One would think that any fault reporting tasks could be more easily and cheaply handled as SMSes or GPRS transfers of a kb or two...

        It isn't like there is a tiny little man in the control box who has to call when he is out of sandwiches or anything...
        • by Digicrat (973598)

          Exactly my thought.

          Some tablets and ebook readers (ie: Nook) include SIM cards to provide data access, but those are specifically set to allow data connections only and nothing else. I find it odd that they couldn't do the same for traffic lights, unless such features don't exist in South African cell networks which are in all likelihood more advanced than the cell networks here . . .

        • Of course they need voice.

          When a pedestrian presses the button at the crossing, it's so they can hear "C'mon, little man, change to green"!

          • by riT-k0MA (1653217)
            Push the button at the crossing? This is South Africa you're talking about. The only pedestrians who push the button here seem to be the elderly and the disabled. The rest run across the road, even in the face of oncoming traffic.
      • by mpe (36238)
        You would think it would be a no-brainer to have the SIM cards on some sort of custom phone plan which only allows calls to a fixed set of numbers, though.

        Presumably that was why the crooks initially only took a few. Then came back when they had checked that they could use the SIMs. Having each SIM tied to the IMEI of the modem would also have been a good idea.
      • by Splab (574204)

        Except most operators don't support a positive list - and most won't even support a negative list. Also, even *IF* they had such an option, the thieves would just have to switch the cards to roaming (this however can be disabled, but aren't on most cards, and since they where so easily picked up, I doubt they where anything but run of the mill standard setup).

        There is almost no business case for an operator to do anything for those SIM card enabled traffic lights. Yeah they might make a bit on a subscriptio

        • by nedlohs (1335013)

          It's a government customer. They want a *really* low volume usage pattern. Technically it should be trivial - if your technically inept then surely you have a prepaid service put the sims on that and set it to autopay $5 (or whatever) each month.

          Roaming shouldn't matter. Or are you claiming I can take my $10 prepaid cell phone sim and just switch to roaming and rack up $10,000 in phone calls?

          Of course I know very little of cell phone tech. I do know that I can buy SMS only plans and really cheap plans with

    • by daid303 (843777) on Saturday January 08, 2011 @07:56PM (#34809318)

      Yes. And it works most of the time.

      Security in the world of road side traffic systems is almost none existent. It's simply not a priority. You cannot pull of a "all green chaos attack" as in "the italian job" (safety systems protect unsafe situations), but you can cause major gridlock with ease if you know what you are doing.

      We fit a lot of our systems with wireless GSM, it's pretty cheap but not that reliable. However, we arrange it so you cannot use those sims for calling, only GPRS/UMTS/3G connections to a private network.

      (I could tell a thing or 2 about the speed camera's we produce, but that would break my NDA I guess)

      • by daid303 (843777)

        Forgot to add, I'm an engineer at a traffic light manufacturer.

      • You cannot pull of a "all green chaos attack" as in "the italian job" (safety systems protect unsafe situations), but you can cause major gridlock with ease if you know what you are doing.

        Surely it's "just" a matter of bypassing the electronics all together and keep the green light lit by powering it directly? Perhaps controlled by your own electronics to be able to have some control over the behavior. You'd need physical access, of course..

        • You also need physical access to steal a SIM card. So the thieves had that.

          • by daid303 (843777)

            A crowbar gives physical access to almost anything ;-)

            But more likely they had a master key. Which makes the inside job more likely.

        • by daid303 (843777)

          In "the italian job" they didn't use physical access. They remotely set all the lights to green, while all green is impossible, all red is a feature! Where I live most lights in a single city are on 1 network, just get physical access to 1 light and you pwn them all so to say.

      • Are there physical interlocks in your engineered traffic light systems like the physical drums from days gone by? Those older analog drum systems would physically prevent an all-green situation. If your system has everything in firmware, and isn't protected by some physical relay system or interlock, the proper attacker could inflict an all-green situation.

    • by camperslo (704715)

      Perhaps they could have avoided using tech useful to consumers, but there are idiots and people on drugs around that will steal just about anything, even if their gain ends up being tiny compared to the damage done. Some people rip things up just looking for scrap copper. In the U.S. I recall reports of a childrens' baseball area with no lighting because the copper was taken, apartment building where the clothes washers were taken just for the coin boxes.

      In this story, I suspect even knowledge of the SIM

  • Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e-net are cheaper when you look at the high cost of GSM data?

    In use most lights use wired base cables for data passing to other lights / the data center.

    • by QuantumBeep (748940) on Saturday January 08, 2011 @07:57PM (#34809320)

      The cost of GSM data isn't very high when all you're sending is "help I'm not working correctly". Since the link serves no other purpose, four bytes should be enough to send a basic diagnostic code.

      SIM cards cost about ten cents, basic GSM hardware maybe a few dollars, and I think it's safe to assume all the poles are on a shared data plan.

      • The cost of GSM data isn't very high when all you're sending is "help I'm not working correctly". Since the link serves no other purpose, four bytes should be enough to send a basic diagnostic code.

        The system I worked on also transmitted data about traffic density and the timing of the signal controller. Each controller negotiates with adjacent intersections to agree on timing so that delays at red lights are minimised. Also traffic engineers can log in to tune the system. Traffic volume data is also transmitted through the link. In that system we used 300 baud modems on hard wired land lines. The system polled so maybe every two seconds you would see 64 bytes going in each direction. Thats about four

        • by Peeteriz (821290)

          If companies in my place are offering mobile internet (no calls, just an USB GSM modem to plug in your computer) for 12$/mth to consumers with a 5g cap; then I assume that a mass purchase for an expected use of 200mb/month would get a price of 5$/month/light. So, including the data costs and GSM hardware, the mobile connection cost is approximately equivalent to digging a ditch for the first ten feet of cable...

      • by mpe (36238)
        The cost of GSM data isn't very high when all you're sending is "help I'm not working correctly". Since the link serves no other purpose, four bytes should be enough to send a basic diagnostic code.

        With 160 bytes being able to send some quite extensive diagnostics.
        One cheap way to do things would be to use prepaid SIMS which will at most have enough credit to send 5-10 texts.
    • Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e-net are cheaper when you look at the high cost of GSM data?

      In use most lights use wired base cables for data passing to other lights / the data center.

      Because outside of North America, the GSM system is significantly more robust than the alternatives, and allows you to lock down the communications. Of course, the fact that these SIMs were not locked down smacks of either incompetence or that the people setting up the system were in on the heist.

    • GSM data isn't cheap; but(at least in reasonably densely settled areas) it works more or less everywhere and the modules needed to add support for it are quite cheap.

      More importantly, if the description that these were a 'fault alert' system is accurate, this is not a data-heavy application. Perhaps a few SMSes, per unit, per year, unless the units are really crap, or have to survive an especially brutal environment.

      While(at least in the US) most telcoes wouldn't bother to spit on you if you asked for
      • by Joe The Dragon (967727) on Saturday January 08, 2011 @08:40PM (#34809780)

        in the us the data link is more then just fault alert lights are linked to each other some of same Controllers are used on ramp meters , lane control systems and more as well passing data on traffic levels.

        any ways us data costs are high like $.01/KB, 1 MB - $4.99, 100 MB $19.99/mo or $35.00 for 200meg and then $0.10 per meg and that's the per line costs.

        • by shitzu (931108)

          Those prices you quote are for a person (notice the article) with one phone. I guess the even prices in the US will be different if you buy it bulk (hundreds of traffic lights). And - in the rest of the world, the prices are A LOT better - i (in Estonia, EU) pay about 6$ per month for unlimited traffic on my cell phone - only the speed is capped at 2mbit - and i am not buying bulk and the traffic lights do not need unlimited traffic.

      • by Gordonjcp (186804)

        GSM data isn't cheap; but(at least in reasonably densely settled areas) it works more or less everywhere and the modules needed to add support for it are quite cheap.

        In the UK, GSM works damn near everywhere (there are a few places where I need to break out a yagi, in the north of Scotland), and GSM and GPRS data is too cheap to be worth billing for. In many cases if you just want to send control and status messages you'd just use SMS, which is free.

        • by Dogtanian (588974)

          In many cases if you just want to send control and status messages you'd just use SMS, which is free.

          Perhaps they are on your plan, but not on the pay-as-you-go one I have on my antique Nokia. Yeah, I'm sure you get SMS "free" if you're already paying a fixed monthly rate for calls and GPRS, so if you're only intending using SMS anyway it's hardly free, is it?! (*)

          And for non-phone devices using the GSM network for "control and status [SMS] messages" only, it's not likely that they'd be using either of the above tariffs- or anything other that they're likely to sell Joe Public- so they'd probably have

          • by Gordonjcp (186804)

            You wouldn't be using that on a commercial device, though. If you're deploying a large quantity of GSM-enabled devices you'd organise with a provider to have a data-only card which costs some small amount and only allows SMS, for a fixed rate based on how much traffic you're likely to throw at it.

          • by Ash-Fox (726320)

            Perhaps they are on your plan, but not on the pay-as-you-go one I have on my antique Nokia.

            I have free unlimited Skype usage on a pay as you go card that hasn't been recharged since I got it (over a year ago) on Three's network.

            (*) I know that the cost is probably negligible to the operators, but they're not going to give it to *you* for nothing if you're not buying anything else off them!

            So how am I getting this service?

      • by daid303 (843777)

        The costs of GSM data compared to the cost of the rest of a trafficlight is almost 0, even if you use expensive dataplans.

        An intersection, with everything, pavement, inductor loops, lights, everything you need for a busy intersection, sets you back about a million.

        Gridlock because of a broken light? Expensive.

        And when we are talking about fault reports, it's not just "I'm not working!", it's "light X is broken now" if a direction has no working red lights anymore then the whole intersection needs to go into

    • by icebike (68054)

      Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e-net are cheaper when you look at the high cost of GSM data?

      High cost of GSM data? What are you talking about?

      Are you posting from South Africa? How would you know the cost? Its the government. They may get all the sims they need by edict for all you know.

      Nothing in the story spoke about GSM DATA. These were probably simple calling sims. If they were DATA only sims (like used in the Nook and other devices) the thieves would not be able to run up a phone bill.

      • by shitzu (931108)

        There is no such thing as a "data only sim". The GSM data vs voice lockup happens on the mobile operator's network side not on the sim card.

        • by amorsen (7485)

          The network operator can easily disable all voice calls (or fax calls, or SMS's) for a given SIM. A SIM is a SIM is a SIM, but selling data-only plans is cheap and easy.

    • Because a solution should be cost effective for the environment.

        GSM is an infrastructure that's already in place. Everything else, you'd have to build out the infrastructure yourself.

    • GSM requires zero infrastructure. No digging of trenches or stringing of cables. When I worked on traffic systems we used photovoltaic power and cellular communications anywhere we might have had to trench more than 100 metres or so. Now the wireless solutions are still cheaper and labour is increasingly expensive. Ten metres of trenching would probably justify using wireless.

      Our hard wired leased lines were changed such that we located our severs in the same exchange areas as the signals. We had twenty of

    • by Peeteriz (821290)

      GSM data is dirt-cheap for the phone company, so if you are in a position to negotiate and there is some competition, then GSM is definitely the simplest way and infinitely cheaper than laying a cable (if you don't have a data cable already there for other purposes). If you need to transfer common sizes of data (excepting, say, video from traffic cameras), then there is no reason for GSM data to be expensive at all.

      For example, in banking here I've seen now a trend for credit card POS terminals in various v

  • by slincolne (1111555) on Saturday January 08, 2011 @07:58PM (#34809338)
    If the lights had a GSM enabled device included, then there would have been an antenna somewhere on the assembly.

    Isn't it possible that the thieves worked this out, and only targeted the lights with the antennas ?

  • Would it not have been fairly simple to put in some sort of security that basically warned when an authorized SIM was being used outside what should have been a fixed location? Hell for that matter wouldnt a simple alarm when the sim was removed been sufficient. Hard to believe a team of engineers would overlook or simply dismiss such a gaping flaw.

    • by jack2000 (1178961)
      If you want to be extra evil you wire in a kill switch, if you open the box without sending a message to the correct box first it fries the entire thing.
      You could possibly make it so it shocks whoever is tampering with it too.
    • by socsoc (1116769)

      a simple alarm when the sim was removed

      Thats brilliant. I wonder why they don't send texts letting people know that the sim was removed...

    • by mpe (36238)
      Would it not have been fairly simple to put in some sort of security that basically warned when an authorized SIM was being used outside what should have been a fixed location?

      Even simpler to just bar voice (and data if you are using SMS) calls

      Hell for that matter wouldnt a simple alarm when the sim was removed been sufficient.

      If the system uses data have it send a status signal every so often, not getting this means you need to send a crew out. If the last status messages wern't along the lines of "N
  • Are these really that valuable? Why aren't they limited by the carrier to a small amount of data and nothing else.
  • All SIM cards have the ability to specify a PIN to lock access.

    The vendor who built this system should have used an encoded PIN to tie the SIM to the embedded system it was built into. That way the SIM on it's own is fairly useless without the rest of the electronics.

    They also should have had a 'phone home' facility so that whoever is monitoring the system would have noticed when the systems were compromised.

    Fitting tamper switches to the enclosure (door opened, removed from pole, etc would have been sm

    • The vendor who built this system should have used an encoded PIN to tie the SIM to the embedded system it was built into. That way the SIM on it's own is fairly useless without the rest of the electronics.

      Assuming the vendor provided the sim, rather than (and far more likely) the JRA.

      They also should have had a 'phone home' facility so that whoever is monitoring the system would have noticed when the systems were compromised.

      SIM cards with a 'phone home' facility? That would be a neat trick.

  • Surely the cards should have been restricted to calling one 'phone numbrer only ???
    • by upuv (1201447)

      Exactly. I completely agree.

      Talk about LAZY. This is a real simple matter to make sure these phones can only call a certain range of numbers. ( Problems, updates, configuration etc may all be at different numbers. )

      But also are these not data only devices. Why the heck was voice even allowed?

      These could all have been easily configured on the providers switch.

  • ...why are you calling from a traffic light?
  • 'No-one apart from JRA and our supplier knows which intersections have that system.'

    This reminds me when my Dad's RCA location put up a chain link fence around the place. The next weekend, the fence was stolen!

    Well, duh! That fence was probably sold to another customer a week later.

    So I would think that someone at "JRA and our supplier" has a friend at a bar, and one night he said, "Oh, did you know that there are SIM chips in traffic lights now . . ."

    Profit split.

  • BEE hard at work (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Arador Aristata (1973216) on Sunday January 09, 2011 @06:25AM (#34813242)
    I work for a South African Construction Company as a SysAdmin and I have to say I was not surprised when I saw this. It is quite stupid when you consider that it is very simple and cost effective to arrange a private APN with the Cell Companies and link SIM cards to it so those sims act like VPN connections, only being able to connect to your network. We do it for about 200 people so how they didn't do something similar and used stock SIM cards I really do not know. Actually I do. There are a range of factors in South Africa that leads to stupid mistakes like this. Firstly there are the power failures. Poorly maintained infrastructure, poor capacity planning, the power is bound to go down even without the summer rain storms. Then you have the fact that Government will only give contracts to Companies with insanely high Black Economic Empowerment levels. You get different levels but to obtain the highest ones you basically have to be an all black company and by from all black suppliers. The problem is, and I know this from job hunting as well as recruiting, that there is a massive skills shortage in South Africa. It is very hard to find a capable IT Professional of any race, and 10 times as hard to find a black one to keep your HR department happy on their quotas. So what happens? You HAVE to employ a black person, but there isn't one with the skills you need so you employ the brightest looking one and train them yourself. But when you have an entire company filled with these types of recruitments there isn't anyone to train the rest. So you have a High Level BEE company that can tender for Government work but who do not really have a clue as to what they are doing. Add to this some bad apples that will leak this info to some shady friends and you have a situation like this. Strangely, I do not think this is not a JRA inside job. They just bought the system. This had to have been an inside job from the IT company that designed the system and knew the SIMs could be used for normal phone calls. Then again, that info could have been slipped to the JRA and the leaked out there. All and all this is what happens when you have a skills shortage in a country and then still try to force companies to employ only certain races regardless if they have the skills or not.

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