back to article South African wireless traffic lights pillaged by SIM-card thieves

The Johannesburg Road Agency is in talks with suppliers to try and stop thieves targeting its shiny new traffic lights for the SIM cards they contain. The Agency has been forking out thousands of rand on phone calls the thieves subsequently make using the snaffled SIMs. Thulani Makhubela, spokesman for the JRA, said: “The JRA …


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  1. D@v3

    I must be missing something here.

    Why do traffic lights need wireless data in the first place?

    1. Steve Evans

      You've missed something...

      It's often easier to add remote control to traffic lights by wireless than dig the road up.

      Why do they need remote control? Well so the whole sequence across the town can be changed a few months before congestion charging is introduced, then changed back to how it was the day congestion charging goes live... That was traffic flow is bound to improve (at least to how it used to be), and a PR success is declared...

      Oh, hang on, that was London. silly me.

    2. JimC

      Wireless Traffic lights...

      Most significant traffic light systems are centrally managed these days. Intervals and so on are controlled by the traffic flows. I remember our Traffic boys were almost happy a few years ago when their (private sector) supplier stuffed up and the lights of [redacted town/city name] went on local control for the day. The place snarled up in gridlock, and the folks had a nice control to demonstrate what they are doing really worked.

      Mobile tech is now sufficiently cheap that its more cost effective to user wireless on the lights than to get BT or whoever to run copper to them. Of course most major British systems are largely copper because been there for a few years, so don't bother trying to raid your local traffic lights for SIM cards...

      1. Charles Manning

        You can't steal air

        Copper wires == scrap metal == money. Wireless has appeal because you can't steal air. These guys even wait for an Eskom blackout so they can steal high voltage power cables. They loved the planned rolling blackouts because they could plan their activities.

        When I lives in South Africa there was a remote light house that was monitored via 25 km of phone wires. which got stolen on a regular basis. They gave up when the thieves stole the truck + wire when still on rolls.

        If the SIMs could be limited to be used for low rate GPRS with cellular modems then that would make them worthless for Johnny Average.

        1. UMTS =(
          Thumb Up

          You can't steal airtime with a bit of savvy

          Bespoke APN's configured with passwords and as you say limited to GPRS only... bit of a no brainer really

    3. Anonymous Coward

      Not every country is UK you know

      Almost everywhere around the world the traffic lights along major routes are synchronised so if you keep to an optimal speed (usually around 2/3 of the speed limit) you catch the green wave and never stop. In the UK this practice was considered to deprive the exchequer of petrol duty revenue and councils were prohibited from using it till as recently as a couple of years back. So having traffic lights along major routes talk to each other is actually a very good idea and is the de-facto standard outside the UK.

      Coming back to SA - in most places around the world (UK included) traffic light management uses copper pairs from the telephone network. From what I know about SA telecoms, that is a solution which is not well suited for them. Out of the developed countries, SA leads in fixed-line replacement services from mobile operators for a reason - they do not have that much copper in the ground. So using mobile for that in SA is not surprising. There is a number of EU telecommunications operators which are going down the same route and offering mobile connectivity for ATMs, credit card terminals, telemetry - all services traditionally associated with copper. It is only a matter of time until we see mobile-enabled traffic lights in the UK as well.

      As far as the authority "having a problem"... Well... They got the wrong contract, the wrong service and they failed to configure the device and the SIM.

      First of all - true fixed line replacement services have mobility turned off. As vodafone SA is ahead of let's say Mobiltel or Telecom Austria in EU in this I would be surprised if they do not have a product with this feature.

      Second, you should be able to barr all the "problematic" calls on the device in the first place.

      Third, I would not be surprised if the miscreants are "well organised". Of course they are. Nobody steals SIMs like this for personal use. They are stolen and auto-dialed to a complicit premium number operator which shares the revenue with whoever stole it. That is textbook fraud and if the traffic authority cannot recover its money there are some interesting questions to be asked...

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Pah rubbish...

        ...I know a set of lights that if you do 57 mph you get every light (all 10) on green, so it is possible.

        Now all they need to do is raise the speed limit from 30 to 60 and everyone can benefit.

      2. Gav
        Big Brother


        "In the UK this practice was considered to deprive the exchequer of petrol duty revenue and councils were prohibited from using it till as recently as a couple of years back. "

        Citation needed. Or at the very least please supply the barcode on your tin-foil helmet.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Citation provided

          No need for barcode off the tin-foil helmet then...

          1. Dino


            re depriving the tax --

            I'm having a hard time getting my head round this.. is it possible this isn't correct and the bbc is wrong about this? Seriously if there's any basis on this shouldn't this open the way for a massive lawsuit against the government?

            apart from wasting fuel and increasing co2 emissions which supposedly the gov has had as a target in one way or another since long before 2009, it causes other damage to vehicles, frustration not to mention loss of productivity.

            How about we sue for lost earnings, extra wear and tear on our vehicles , extra fuel consumption and even extra wear and tear on the roads themselves.

            Am I the only one seing red here?? It's like me, a system support engineer, creating faults on the network so that I get more callouts afaics.

            But also if true this is just monumental stupidity, even if we say that its' ok to want to increase tax revenue by any means necessary - this would in fact have the opposite effect as everyone would just reduce travel by car because if taken to the extreme and just having cars waiting at lights all day then people will stop using their cars (if they haven't burned down all the lights in the meantime)

            I've often wondered though how they are meant to be synced - cause most of the time there is a wave of green to be had if you speed - and sometimes excessively over the speed limit and sometimes end up doing it not because I want to speed, but because I just cannot stand waiting at traffic lights...Seriously I think I'm gonna start asking questions about this ... Where to write the FOIA requests on this I wonder??...

          2. Apocalypse Later

            not a respectable source

            The BBC is still hyping the global warming myth, too. I wouldn't believe a word they utter.

        2. ambrosen

          My thought too

          ""In the UK this practice was considered to deprive the exchequer of petrol duty revenue and councils were prohibited from using it till as recently as a couple of years back. "

          Citation needed. Or at the very least please supply the barcode on your tin-foil helmet."

          Apparently the BBC said so:

          I'd still like to see what the actual DfT guidance said.

      3. Rob Dobs
        Thumb Up

        Spot On!

        You are right about thieves using these stolen cards to call high priced call services.

        I would think it should be a no-brainer that ANY country, person or legitimate organization would should CANCEL any fraudulent charges.

        The receipent of the money from the crime (the phone number being called) should ALSO BE CHARGED WITH THE CRIME!!!. Sure we may have to prove their guilt to lock them up, but their phone records, bank accounts etc should ALL be subject to investigation when they are recieving funds from calls from stolen phones.

        If their personal shit gets looked into when they commit this crime, if the phone operators BY DEFAULT - CANCEL any disputed charges THEN THE CRIMINALS WILL STOP WHEN THEY CANT MAKE MONEY THIS WAY!!! (make the 900 operator recover the bill in court like everyone else has too).

      4. FrancisKing

        UK too

        "In the UK this practice was considered to deprive the exchequer of petrol duty revenue and councils were prohibited from using it till as recently as a couple of years back. So having traffic lights along major routes talk to each other is actually a very good idea and is the de-facto standard outside the UK."

        The UK has had synchronised traffic lights for a long time. TRANSYT was (and still is to a large extent) the software which does the calculations for it. TRANSYT goes back to the days of punched card data entry.

    4. bell

      One more thing ...

      Specifically in Johannesburg, the likelyhood of lightning damage to kit connected by copper pairs is enormous. As it is we lose huge numbers of traffic lights either drowned or struck during the storm season. Add some extra wiring in there and I think you could get close to 100% failure over December.

  2. Peter Simpson 1


    Why are these SIM cards not restricted to GPRS use only by the carrier?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Obvious

      Exactly my thoughts. Have they not heard of data only sims? I've used them a few times in the UK. It's a great way to stop them accidentally going "walkies" if the device using them is being used by you're general local authority employee.

  3. Anonymous Coward

    600 SIM cards make an MVNO

    Bet the system doesn't even need calls or text and only uses GPRS.

    Easy enough to lock down access at the network level to only allow access to relevant resources, although I'm not sure how MTN and Vodacom are to deal with B2B.

  4. Anonymous Coward

    How much is a few tubs of Superglue?

    How much is a few tubs of Superglue, so that the SIMS can only be removed by wrecking them?

    Or if not that, a deal with the network operators so that the SIMs in question cannot be used for making voice calls?

    Anyway, thanks for the idea, I've seen these on traffic lights round here recently. Where's me (SIM) toolkit?

    1. Chad H.

      Wrecking them

      Got a feeling they already thought of that... The quoted repair bill doesn't add up to just 400 "ten for a penny" sim cards.

  5. Wayne

    Why equip the robots (traffic lights) ?

    Why bother trying to 'fancy up' the traffic lights in Joburg? No-one pays any attention to them anyway!

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I'm sure someone will say it's easy to see the problem after the event, but wasn't this result obvious before as well ?

  7. Evil Auditor Silver badge

    Re "clearly have information"

    How difficult can it be to detect whether there is a gsm transmitter around?!

  8. Badbob

    That's a bloody good idea...

    A lot of traffic lights round these parts seem to have acquired odd gray boxes and aerials on top of them recently. I presumed it was some kind of trial by the council because it seems to be quite a rural location for traffic management.

    But methinks it's time to break out the hammer and go get some free SIM's. It's only South Lanarkshire Council (who recently gave some money to a Nigerian general and nearly closed a dozen schools because someone forgot to carry the 1 in a budget) so no doubt they are open to all uses.

  9. Anonymous Coward

    ordinary lights have not been targetted

    Well, that's a relief. Thanks for sharing that tidbit.

    Would that be because they don't have SIM cards in them?

  10. The Original Ash

    Serves them right!

    They shouldn't have been so spiteful and cruel to the prawn.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    The Agency has been forking out thousands of rand on phone calls the thieves subsequently make using the snaffled SIMs. Thousands of rand? How much is that in real money? Couple quid?

    1. Allen Versfeld

      Not a lot of money

      A few thousand rand is a few hundred pounds. It would be more, except that south african law requires stolen phones/simcards to be reported to the police and the service provider (within 24 hours, I think). I doubt the cards are being used for any sort of sophisticated fraud - more likely they're being sold on to consumers as "Free phone calls". Reason being both we don't have the sort of expensive premium rate numbers that you've got in .uk, and that the phone bills are so low.

    2. Blain Hamon

      Well, since you asked...

      A thousand rand is 95.23 pounds.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Barely worth a couple EUR.. like 100 or so.

        Nothing to get excited about....

  12. AlistairJ
    Thumb Up

    Way way back

    There was a similar scam in the UK. The AA had set up a string of wirelessly connected emergency telephones along the early motorway network. Each was powered by a car battery in the base that was presumably replaced with a freshly charged one at a regular interval. Thereby helping to keep the British motorist moving (hence the thumbs up).

  13. Rob Dobs

    Fail on the police

    Who ever is making these calls is calling somebody.

    Start locking up all the receipients of the phone calls until they talk.

    Problem solved.

    Hell you nab the leeches off society and lock them up, you'll probably solve a lot of other related crime problems as well.

    Sounds like an organized effort and the police head should be fired for not being more alert and reactive.

    400! 400! out of 600. I will be you money they never even bothered to stake out a few lights and nab the thieves. Lock them up and wait until they talk and you can get the asshole running the whole show.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      IT Angle

      in south africa..

      if it's not a traffic offence that can be fined gratuitously then it isn't enough of a crime. Murder tends to get even less severe penalties than not paying parking fines at certain times..

  14. Richard 12 Silver badge

    And why aren't they locked down for location?

    Can't be that hard to lock down the network so that each SIM will only talk to the two nearest cell towers.

    It's not like they're *mobile* devices, right?

  15. Andrew Woodvine

    Just bar all outgoing calls

    *330*barring code# [SEND]

  16. JaitcH

    The cellco's have the answer

    The Jo'burg traffic guys should have a little chat with their cellco provider.

    It is extremely simple to program the Class of Service so that given SIMs can only dial pre-determined numbers. This would eliminate the reason for the thefts - wide open dialling plans.

    Another alternative is to use equipment where the SIM data is held within a memory chip - this is used on miniature data collection systems when the luxury of circuit-board real estate is at a premium or where the data capture/transmission systems are encapsulated for weather proofing purposes.

    One system in Indochina uses only SMS transmissions - very quick 'burst' data - which can also be controlled by Class of Service eliminating the ability to use voice. Mind you, the Chinese built system has poor reliability, the 'counting' displays often go into reverse - counting up, rather than down, to the next light sequence.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I take it power line networking is out of the question?

  18. Arthur Jackson

    There is a God, and he is a runner

    Speaking as a pedestrian I have observed "odd" behaviour on a regular training run, group of several runners hitting green pedestrian lights in sequence over a route with a couple of "complex" junctions involved, these junctions usually require a button press to activate the pedestrian sequence, so, either there is an IR detection system seeing a group of runners as a vehicle and switching the lights to pedestrian, or there is a " Deity of your Choice" who is busy training for next years London / Edinburgh / Cardiff Marathon and is switching the sequence to optimise the training regime.

  19. Al 4

    Ban off the shelf parts

    This is one case wheher off the shelf parts shouldn't be used. If there is enough of a need for these cards and it sounds like there is then a special version should be created that is totally incompatible with any phone (different voltage requirement, pin-out, shape, etc.) and they should be restricted as to what kinds of functionality they offer. This is a case of the manufacturer doing things on the cheap where in this case it hurt the purchaser of their product.

  20. Pete 8


    would problly have a name starting with a V in it, and as their billing systems are multi-dimensionally rogered, would have to use a voiceline number to begin each sim account.

  21. TkH11

    Limiting a SIM to data only

    Data transmissions and voice calls are made using different transmitters by the mobile phone and on different frequencies.

    It's absolutely trivial to limit a mobile phone to data only. Indeed, I recently had to replace a SIM for my T Mobile 3G stick, and they provided me with a conventional voice call SIM, which then had to be configured (converted) to data only.

    I'm not a mobile comms expert, but this feature will be implemented in either:

    a list of services inside the SIM card, or a list of services for that particular SIM is able to use, which is held by the network.

    I work in a telcoms/data comms company: everything is about services routed over telecoms equipment, everything is service based. Voice traffic will be a service, data traffic will be a different service. The idea that a telecoms provider can't control/restrict the services for a particular subscriber is just nonsense.

    1. UMTS =(
      Thumb Up


      Everything you've said TkH11 is pretty much correct, services are provisioned on the Home location register (HLR) profile but the bit about using different transmitters and different frequencies is incorrect.

  22. SpaMster

    Most expensive sim cards EVER

    Since when did replacing 400 sim cards cost over $800,000 0_0

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