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Thieves in South Africa Hit Traffic Lights For SIM Cards

Soulskill posted more than 3 years ago | from the proceed-with-caution dept.

Cellphones 181

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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PIN numbers? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809100)

SIM cards are typically protected with a SIM card. That protection was either deactivated (which is stupid), or the inside job goes much deeper than that.

Re:PIN numbers? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809156)

I doubt those stupid niggers did much in the way of hacking. They probably thought they could steal them and call thay hoes forever and not have to spend their drug money or their welfare money.

Re:PIN numbers? (3)

icebike (68054) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809346)

SIM cards are typically protected with a SIM card.

That level of redundancy would make it doubly worth while to steal a sim. Two-Fer!!!

Are you sure you didn't mean a sim PIN is used to protect a sim card?

Re:PIN numbers? (5, Informative)

Flytrap (939609) | more than 3 years ago | (#34810758)

This was negligance on the part of the JRA... I have just rolled out over 8000 point of sale machines fitted with SIM cards... and during planning questions around "... what happens whens should the retailers staff start to pull the SIM cards out every night to make private calls..."

There are two options... and we are using both:
1) a. get the network to turn off voice capability so that the cards are data only
1) b. limit the data bill to R20 (about US$3) per month (which we calculated would be adequate for most transaction volumes)
2) migrate the SIM base to a private APN so that the SIMs become point to point VPN data SIMs (i.e. can only connect to our servers)

In the case of the JRA, the traffic lights had to be vandalised to get to the SIMs... so the cost to the city is going to be a lot more than just simply replacing the SIMs. In our case we did not care because we did not think that staff would vandalise their own terminals (it would be known who did it) and we deliberatly spread the word that the SIMs are useless for anything but what they were intended for because they were locked down to our private APN.

Re:PIN numbers? (1)

mwvdlee (775178) | more than 3 years ago | (#34812824)

3) Limit the SIMs to only dial into the few numbers they need to.

First (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809106)

First SIM^WPost

So? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809134)

Fix the GSM system so that these sims can only call one number. It takes about five minutes to accomplish and the thieves would quickly learn that stealing these sims is a waste of time.

STO, really, again? (1)

turbidostato (878842) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809144)

'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?

Re:STO, really, again? (2)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809234)

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?

Re:STO, really, again? (5, Insightful)

nedlohs (1335013) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:STO, really, again? (1)

habig (12787) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809344)

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 base, that's even easier.

Re:STO, really, again? (1)

jack2000 (1178961) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809490)

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.

Re:STO, really, again? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809624)

I don't think you understand south africa.

Re:STO, really, again? (3, Funny)

zippthorne (748122) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809684)

They don't have physics in south africa?

Re:STO, really, again? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34810190)

They don't have physics in south africa?

Correct.

Re:STO, really, again? (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34810632)

They did, but a gang of thieves stole it.

Re:STO, really, again? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34811088)

TIA

Re:STO, really, again? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34810048)

The people stealing the SIM cards aren't desperate to chat for free. They stick them in phones (usually themselves stolen) and then sell the phones as cheap pre-paids. The fact that in the next day the customer may find the cops at his door or at the very least have a nonfunctional phone isn't really important to the thieves.

Re:STO, really, again? (1)

ChunderDownunder (709234) | more than 3 years ago | (#34810548)

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:STO, really, again? (1)

Adam Jorgensen (1302989) | more than 3 years ago | (#34812426)

As an SA resident I was under the impression that thieves here usually dump the SIM card as soon as they steal a phone for precisely this reason...

Re:STO, really, again? (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34812512)

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 those original three circles you really have to draw two circles; one representing the closest the phone could be with that strength, and another representing the furthest. Do this with all three circles, and it's the intersecting area which shows the location. However, this isn't a point, and especially in dense population areas the 'location' can easily encompass a large chunk of the city.

So if you're talking about finding someone on a wide-open flat grassy plain, then it's pretty simple. Get into a city with a lot of tall buildlings, landform variation, etc. and it's just not that easy to do. And even if you can get the location narrowed to within a few hundred yards, in many cities that can mean thousands of potential suspects.

Re:STO, really, again? (4, Insightful)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809424)

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...

Re:STO, really, again? (1)

Digicrat (973598) | more than 3 years ago | (#34810214)

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 . . .

Re:STO, really, again? (1)

ChunderDownunder (709234) | more than 3 years ago | (#34810568)

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"!

Re:STO, really, again? (1)

Pyrus.mg (1152215) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811130)

Some bureaucrats probably got cheap hardware upgrades for a 3 year contract on an new voice plan activation for their traffic lights. Bureaucracy plus wireless providers equals a perfect storm of corruption and greed.

Re:STO, really, again? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34811382)

My company sells SIM cards locked to do SMS only, data and voice are disabled. They're set up with unlimited SMS for 1 year. When you prepay and lock them down the price is very good. These are for an SMS addon for an embedded device we sell. We do not lock the customer to using our card but we're very competitive so customers usually buy ours and we are rather rabid about telling them it's about to expire. We have an interest in getting the repeat business.

Re:STO, really, again? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809272)

I don't know, DO they?

Re:STO, really, again? (5, Interesting)

daid303 (843777) | more than 3 years ago | (#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)

Re:STO, really, again? (2)

daid303 (843777) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809332)

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

Re:STO, really, again? (0)

catmistake (814204) | more than 3 years ago | (#34810880)

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

Why is there still traffic? Why can't a scalable traffic system be designed and built with smart traffic lights that actually see and react to traffic? Why can't an intersection be aware enough to see you approach the empty intersection and smart enough to give you a green light before you arrive?

IT'S 2011!!! WTFFF?? Smart traffic lights NOW PLZ KTHXBAI!!!

Re:STO, really, again? (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34811300)

Why are you asking a traffic light manufacturer dude? No doubt he does know a thing or two about traffic in general, but you'd really want to talk to a (city) traffic engineer. These are the people who actually work out the signaling for given areas taking into account other areas, major highways, the time of day, behavior during rush hour, etc.

Why can't a scalable traffic system be designed and built with smart traffic lights that actually see and react to traffic?

These do exist - but often a pre-programmed format works out better. Take for example an intersection of a busy through road and a residential road. On the residential road is you and your wife who just got married and you've got 20 other cars trailing you. The 'smart' signaling system sees the 10 cars and decides to give you more time at the intersection.. instead of letting ~8 cars pass, it's going to let you and the other 20 cars through. But now you've halted traffic on the through road for so long that the traffic light a block further back is already green again and cars are backing up into that intersection.

Why can't an intersection be aware enough to see you approach the empty intersection and smart enough to give you a green light before you arrive?

These also exist. There's tons of those where I live - there's just an induction loop in the road some hundred yards or so from the traffic lights. Now you might say "well 100 yards isn't enough if I'm cruising along at 35mph" - but keep in mind that just as -you- would like to see the traffic light magically change to green when it should 'know' the intersection is clear, there might be somebody in another car from a side direction thinking the exact same thing. So when you think the traffic signal is 'smart' and will give you a green by the time you hit the intersection, so will that person. That's a Bad Thing. That's why the loops are closer to the intersection here.. to make even drivers who are familiar with these intersections and 'know' they will get a green slow down enough to get a good overview of the intersection and be able to stop well in time just in case they do -not- get that green because somebody else did.

It's 2011 and we need smarter drivers more than we need smarter traffic lights :)

That said, there's certainly intersections that are on a completely fixed interval, going through 4 or even 7 directions in a cycle, and in the middle of the night you just have to wait and wait and wait wondering just who the heck the other directions' traffic lights are on green for. Just know that this is not for a lack of technology and capability - it's typically for a lack of the municipality/state/whoever wanting to pay.

Re:STO, really, again? (2)

adolf (21054) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811624)

We have, in my small town, one (1) intersection which works exactly as you describe. The default state of the light is green for the main drag, but if you approach on a side street at a reasonable speed the light will turn green before you get to the intersection (as long as there's no other traffic). These side-streets aren't ever particularly busy, so the light then (quite reasonably) goes back to default a few seconds after you've cleared it.

It uses cameras to detect traffic using some computer-vision wizardry*, which is increasingly common around here (NW Ohio).

We used to have an exchange with I75 which when exiting the interstate would consistently have a green light waiting for you at the top of the exit ramp. This was done using conventional inductive loops. They ruined that 10 years or so ago, while also deleting the dedicated right-turn-with-yield lanes. The interchange now consistently makes folks wait, no matter what direction they're going. I guess that's progress.

*: So far, that's the only thing the cameras are being used for. There's a lot of noise recently about installing some red light cameras here, but honestly, if every intersection behaved as sanely as described above there would hardly ever be a reason to run a red light, including inattentiveness. Make the yellow a bit longer to eliminate instances where people can't stop in time, whether due to weather or bad/inherently lousy brakes or whatever, and things would be far safer than a red light camera could ever make them.

Re:STO, really, again? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34812764)

Oh so all the cameras in NW ohio are just for monitoring then? No real function but invasion of privacy?

Re:STO, really, again? (1)

pjt33 (739471) | more than 3 years ago | (#34812872)

They've been around for ages. Not always very good at detecting cyclists (I've once or twice had to jump red lights at night after waiting more than 5 minutes for them to change), and they still can't eliminate traffic entirely when there's contention. I mean, come on: you can get traffic on a straight road with no traffic lights if people want to turn into side roads or someone's a bit heavy on the brake.

Re:STO, really, again? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34810976)

Yank the conflict monitor card on many signal controllers and you could easily setup an all green situation as in the movie you mentioned.

You could do that in advance, then load the software as needed.

And signal controllers are often unlocked or poorly secured..

Re:STO, really, again? (2)

tenchikaibyaku (1847212) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809480)

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..

Re:STO, really, again? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809986)

better yet, tape your own LEDs in front of the ordinary one :)
No thought required

Re:STO, really, again? (1)

hawaiian717 (559933) | more than 3 years ago | (#34812326)

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

Re:STO, really, again? (1)

TooMuchToDo (882796) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809552)

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.

Re:STO, really, again? (1)

zippthorne (748122) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809702)

I dunno. I saw the same episode of Macguyver and I'm not convinced of your assertion.

Re:STO, really, again? (1)

camperslo (704715) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809524)

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 cards, without specific locations, could have been enough. Perhaps the linked units had small visible antennas.

Re:STO, really, again? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34810924)

Yes, very true. I remember when our point of sale network converted from leased lines over to VSAT we had "idiot" thieves climb on several of our station's roofs to steal their VSAT dishes. These dumb-asses probably thought they could get TV on the darn things. Of course, at the time, they were fairly specialized equipment and not all that common. The resale value for stolen ones was about $0 as they had no real use. Thieves aren't generally very smart.

Wakey, wakey... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809194)

The thieves ran up bills amounting to thousands of dollars by using the stolen cards to make calls.

I guess more people that we think are in on it. The theft should have been discovered really fast, since the lights were out, and it should be only logical to assume the cards were stolen in order to make calls. So why weren't they blocked sooner?

Re:Wakey, wakey... (1)

Kitkoan (1719118) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811922)

Most likely it wasn't noticed sooner because it seems that in South Africa power failures are common. [southafricalogue.com] Guess people just assumed it was another power issue and ignored it guessing they'd come back on at some other time.

Re:Wakey, wakey... (1)

Adam Jorgensen (1302989) | more than 3 years ago | (#34812410)

Not that common, really. I live in Cape Town and power outages are rare here.

Re:Wakey, wakey... (2)

Kitkoan (1719118) | more than 3 years ago | (#34812444)

Well the link more accurately says the power failures are common in Johannesburg, and the missing SIM cards are from the lights in Johannesburg.

Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e-ne (1)

Joe The Dragon (967727) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809270)

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.

Re:Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e (4, Interesting)

QuantumBeep (748940) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809586)

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 megabytes per day. Not much for a 3G link these days but it is possible the South Africans are integrating speed and red light cameras with the same system. That will obviously push the data requirements up.

Re:Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e (1)

Peeteriz (821290) | more than 3 years ago | (#34812708)

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...

Re:Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e (1)

Bob The Magic Camel (1213434) | more than 3 years ago | (#34810424)

Surely an "I'm still alive signal" sent at regular intervals would be a better option, as it would detect failures that interrupt the connection. Like this one.

Re:Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e (2)

Em Adespoton (792954) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809366)

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.

Re:Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e (2)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809390)

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 such a plan in quantity 1, I would strongly suspect that "We need 600 units, with the possibility of some thousands more over the coming years if things go well, SMS/GPRS only, low per-node usage" would get you a price that would be pretty favorable compared to rolling your own infrastructure.

If your plan is to put a battery of surveillance cameras on every streetlamp, or create some grand-unified-city-sensor-net, then cellular isn't going to be so hot; but it actually works pretty well for low frequency data reporting in settled areas...

in the us the data link is more then just fault al (3, Informative)

Joe The Dragon (967727) | more than 3 years ago | (#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.

Re:in the us the data link is more then just fault (1)

shitzu (931108) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811162)

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.

Re:Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e (1)

slincolne (1111555) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809426)

GSM is typically cheaper.

I've purchased GSM SIM cards on plans with no ongoing costs - you only pay for the data transmitted.

If the devices are not reporting frequently, and only need to send short messages indicating faults or general device stats (eg a daily 'all is well' SMS) then the transmission costs are quite low.

Embedded GSM modems are not particularly expensive either. You can buy a SMT GSM module from Sparkfun for under $50, and they are even cheaper wholesale.

The other technologies all need the deployment of a complementary data network. Given that most modern cities have some form of cellular network that is maintained by someone else, cellular is very cost effective.

Re:Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e (1)

icebike (68054) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809488)

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.

Re:Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e (1)

shitzu (931108) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811186)

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.

Re:Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e (1)

Weedhopper (168515) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809542)

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.

Re:Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809626)

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 the things. We 3G you could use a single data centre for a single country and cut down on infrastructure further.

Re:Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e (1)

Flytrap (939609) | more than 3 years ago | (#34810878)

Are you nuts... have you ever been to Johannesburg... there are over 100,000 (yes, over one hundred thousand traffic lights in Johannesburg alone). Johannesburg is not a little village... it is a massive city with over 5 million people living and working there. The networking costs would be huge. Far cheaper to simply use the existing GSM network... remember, the lights are not sending monitoring data (i.e. they do not need a sophisticated data link like GPRS), they are just sending status or fault alerts which are better send using SMS or USSD

Re:Why have GSM cell? fiber / wifi / microwave / e (1)

Peeteriz (821290) | more than 3 years ago | (#34812686)

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 vendors (typically restaurants) to use a GSM-connection for calling the bank, as it's cheaper than landlines and mobility for POS terminals is automatically included so they can bring the device right to the customer table.

Wouldn't the GSM antennas have been a hint ? (3, Interesting)

slincolne (1111555) | more than 3 years ago | (#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 ?

Re:Wouldn't the GSM antennas have been a hint ? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809930)

My cell phone has a GSM antenna, and you can't even see it

Re:Wouldn't the GSM antennas have been a hint ? (0)

Bob The Magic Camel (1213434) | more than 3 years ago | (#34810456)

You have an invisible phone?

Re:Wouldn't the GSM antennas have been a hint ? (1)

KiwiSurfer (309836) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811260)

Mod parent up -- excellent point. The antenna could very well be hidden.

Re:Wouldn't the GSM antennas have been a hint ? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34810962)

How big is the antenna on your phone?

They were provisioned with voice plans? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809374)

If they made voice calls, the SIMs had to have some kind of voice plan on them, and the fact that the government actually allowed that for traffic lights is nuts!

not very well thought out.... (1)

grapeape (137008) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809376)

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.

Re:not very well thought out.... (1)

jack2000 (1178961) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809538)

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.

Re:not very well thought out.... (1)

socsoc (1116769) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811560)

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...

Wow.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809414)

So, why didn't they lock the sims to the IMEI? Are the carriers in SA so backwater that they can't provision a SIM that's limited to sending a text message to 1 or 2 places?

Just another case in which a little preparation would have saved a LOT of money.

Should have used data only cards (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809434)

There are several companies that offer data only cards for machine to machine use. These cards would no doubt be a cheaper solution as well.

The reason GSM is used is because the infrastructure is already in place and utilizing it costs a lot less than setting op your own custom system.

The GSM antenna is very small and can be concealed very easily.

Organized crime (1)

seyfarth (323827) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809438)

Stealing 400 sim cards seems way beyond the rationality of simply making calls. A better bet is that some calls were made to centers which charge fees like some phone sex numbers. That way substantial money could be made before the cards were disabled. It seems like a fairly good scheme, but not good enough to make enough money to be worth the risk. It sounds like organized crime by some small-time organizers. I would expect that most likely the numbers called were to a country which would not cooperate will with investigation. The crime is not likely to be easily repeated, so the planners now need a new plan. It would be interesting to learn what results from this. Clearly the group which installed the system needs to make a better plan.

but how will they get there cut the phone companie (1)

Joe The Dragon (967727) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809678)

but how will they get there cut the phone companies likely will not a 3rd party after some this big.

Re:Organized crime (1)

horatio (127595) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811002)

The crime is not likely to be easily repeated

No? It sounds like the city got a "shark bump" as it were. Someone tried stealing a few of the cards, and it worked. Only after succeeding, and no mitigation efforts, the thieves went to town From TFA:

The vandalism began with a few lights in November and we repaired them. Over December the thieves struck again, this time hitting hundreds more, including the ones we had repaired

This isn't unlike homes targeted by burglars who return a couple of weeks later after the owner has purchased all new shiny, expensive electronics.

Crowdsource? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809456)

why not put a sign with a number to call as well as providing a unique number so motorists can use their cellphones to notify the city?

Useless SIMs (1)

jhobbs (659809) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809498)

Are these really that valuable? Why aren't they limited by the carrier to a small amount of data and nothing else.

Re:Useless SIMs (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809686)

The conversation probably went something like this:

Engineer: For $5 a month we can get a special M2M SIM card which is only provisioned for data, has a 5MB hard limit, and we get dedicated business support.
Manager: But I only pay $5 a month for my phone and I get 1GB and calls!
Engineer: But that's not a M2M provisioned SIM card... and we only use 1MB per month and we don't need to make calls.
Manager: I don't know what that means so we're going to use a standard SIM card in all the devices because that other thing must be a rip off.

Why weren't the SIMs PIN protected ? (2)

slincolne (1111555) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809520)

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 smart.

Checking the bills on the cards to see where they are calling, how much has been spent, etc would have been smart

That would of course require someone to be routinely monitoring the system (it's not like traffic lights are there to save lives is it) so that things like this are not a surprise.

This really sounds like a system built by the cheapest tenderer - not unusual for a government organisation.

Re:Why weren't the SIMs PIN protected ? (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 3 years ago | (#34810390)

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.
 

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

And expensive. And prone to failure.
 

Checking the bills on the cards to see where they are calling, how much has been spent, etc would have been smart

Reading TFA is seems that's exactly what they did.
 

This really sounds like a system built by the cheapest tenderer - not unusual for a government organisation.

Nah, sounds more like a typical mindless comment by a typical Slashdot jackass know-it-all.

Have job will rob (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809536)

Simple solution - all SA networks allow free call-me-back (**#) on zero balance prepaid SIMs. (2am in Durban :)

PIN code ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809556)

I wonder if they changed the default PIN code, which is AFAIK stored in the SIM card. They could have limited the damage by limiting the number of people that know the PIN code, and also they would have reduced the number of suspects, in case the PIN was leaked too.

no surprise. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34809634)

South Africa is a hell-hole, just like detroit.

Why general SIM cards ? (1)

Alain Williams (2972) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809642)

Surely the cards should have been restricted to calling one 'phone numbrer only ???

Re:Why general SIM cards ? (1)

upuv (1201447) | more than 3 years ago | (#34812844)

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.

Simple Solution (1)

intangible (252848) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809648)

It does sound like an inside job... but I suppose they do need to implement a solution now.

Since the SIM cards themselves are pretty cheap, they're not making money off the raw materials or anything.... just do the following:

1. Work with the cell phone company to lock the SIMs to only dial a list of phone numbers, everything else fails and notifies someone.
2. Super glue the SIM cards in the slot or encase the local area around them in some kind of epoxy or acrylic... SIM cards shouldn't need to be replaced or fail before the electronics.

Relatedly, traffic lights suspects in phone fraud (1)

noidentity (188756) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809748)

In related news, police have issued warrants for 400 traffic lights in connection with recent phone fraud. If you encounter a traffic light, exercise caution.

Did anyone think to ask... (2)

todfm (1973074) | more than 3 years ago | (#34809756)

...why are you calling from a traffic light?

Definitely an inside job (1)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | more than 3 years ago | (#34810006)

'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.

Re:Definitely an inside job (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34812636)

No. It's more than just loose lips. Out of 1000 traffic lights, the thieves knew with almost 100% certainty which 600 lights to rip open for the SIM.

This means that somebody got handed a map/listing of which 600 traffic lights had SIM cards in them .... and that same somebody probably talked management out of putting limits/locks on the SIM cards.

"Oh, that's being paranoid... Like somebody's gonna rip open a $10,000 traffic light to get at a $.50 SIM card. Ha!."

Not surprising in the least. (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34810178)

South Africa is chock full of niggers. You can't have anything worth anything out in public around those people. If it was an inside job, then almost certainly it was an apefirmative-action hire that gave the information to his nigger cohorts. No doubt they sold the cards in da hood to buy crack or jenkem. TNB, nothing more.

Oh Slashdot... (0)

WarpedCore (1255156) | more than 3 years ago | (#34810224)

The headline should have said "Horny Traffic Lights in Johannesburg Rack Up Thousands in Phone Bills as Public Outrage".

Why was voice provisioned? (1)

dingram17 (839714) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811060)

What idiot working for either the carrier or the road company got SIMs provisioned with voice? Surely private IP network GPRS would be sufficient and would keep the traffic lights off the public internet?

My prepaid 3G data SIM card is incapable of phone calls, so I know that GSM/UMTS has the ability to provide voice, data or both. As other people have said too, why was the SIM PIN not used? If the SIM PIN was enabled then the knowledge of that PIN should be tightly held and would give a clue to the 'inside' job nature.

Another protection would be IMEI locking with the carrier so the SIM couldn't be used elsewhere. When you put infrastructure in public then you need to be paranoid. We installed our GSM modems at the top of 275kV and 500kV power pylons, which have their own anti-climb features and a rather unhealthy sounding corona discharge.

Re:Why was voice provisioned? (1)

AHuxley (892839) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811200)

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8285406.stm [bbc.co.uk]
"to take the British Hawk fighter jets rather than a much cheaper Italian alternative."
Why buy a system thats requested when everybody wins with another contact?

Re:Why was voice provisioned? (1)

shitzu (931108) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811246)

Another protection would be IMEI locking with the carrier so the SIM couldn't be used elsewhere.

Just for information:
IMEI identifies the phone, not the SIM. You can not lock the IMEI to the carrier and even if you could, it wouldn't have anything to do with using SIM.

And SIM is always locked to a carrier. You can only get on one carrier's network or its roaming partner's network.

Re:Why was voice provisioned? (1)

dingram17 (839714) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811762)

The SIM can be locked to only work with one IMEI (this is done on the SIM itself). Since the SIM only works with one carrier (provided roaming is not enabled), then the carrier should be able to set things up so that only one IMEI (i.e. modem) can use that SIM.

We basically agree, except I meant to lock the SIM to the IMEI so the SIM cannot be used elsewhere. It is possible to lock a terminal to work with only one SIM too, but this is not the problem.

Inside Job? (1)

EricX2 (670266) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811644)

They say it is an inside job because they only targeted the ones with SIM cards. So they didn't take the SIM cards out of the ones without SIM cards? Does that make sense? Are the traffic lights different between the ones with and without SIM cards? If so, once you knew which ones were different, it would be easy.

It doesn't even make sense. They took 400 and ran up huge bills. Stealing 400 SIM cards from 400 traffic lights must take time to do, and if the lights stopped working at that point, why didn't they immediately check to make sure they weren't being used? If the lights don't stop working when the SIM cards are removed, why are they "out of action" now? It's not like you can take a SIM card, run up thousands a dollar bill on it in a few minutes. Did they take them, put them all in phones and start downloading the entire wikipedia database or something? While outside of the country. Roaming.

PSA: Dear Engineers (1)

CityZen (464761) | more than 3 years ago | (#34811714)

For any system that you design, please always ask the questions: What if someone tries to abuse this? How can I prevent that?

Because people will! In fact, some of them may be better problem-solvers than you are. Count on it.

Re:PSA: Dear Engineers (1)

upuv (1201447) | more than 3 years ago | (#34812850)

Sorry that does not fit into the project plan.

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