The SIM card, it revolutionised the mobile phone industry and spurred us into the world of portable communication and later smartphones. However, 25 years after its first integration, the humble SIM card is possibly facing the end of a short but eventful life.
Vulnerabilities to attacks, dated technology and modern alternatives have meant SIM cards could be living on borrowed time… but does anyone really care?
So what is a SIM card?
Well a SIM, or Subscriber Identity Module, is a small card equipped with circuit board that is placed in your phone (or tablet) in order to identify it to your provider. SIMs hold the personal information of the account holder, including their phone number, address book, text messages, pictures and other personal data.
Why SIM cards?
SIM cards, originally much larger in size, hit the market in 1991 as a way to quickly and safely transfer data from shared phones. At the time, as many of you will have experienced, mobile phones were rather bulky, strapped round a salesman’s shoulder or often found wedged into shared cars.
A SIM card could be easily slotted into the phone and would allow users to quickly and easily transfer their phone number and contacts from one phone, or car, to the next. The SIM card negated the need to type in long ID codes each time a new user wanted to access the phone.
From this, the size and sophistication of the SIM advanced with modern mobiles, but the concept is effectively the same.
Why are SIMs at risk?
As SIM cards can be physically accessed and tampered with, they are theoretically a security risk. Earlier in the year Gemalto, a Dutch SIM manufacturer was embroiled in a hacking scandal with both British and American special agencies. It was alleged the NSA and GCHQ launched attacks on its computer systems to gain billions of mobile device encryption keys.
If this is the case, billions of new SIMs could be vulnerable to hacking, not to mention anything that could or has been done before.
Why were SIMs not ditched earlier?
SIM cards are a rather odd relic in the usually fast packed, cut throat, market of mobile tech. Most redundant technology would have been eradicated years ago, but the SIM survived.
Dr Markus Kuhn, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at University of Cambridge, believes that the SIM could have been succeeded many years ago.
“The fact is that the SIM could have been replaced long ago with a simpler alternative: typing in a user identifier and password directly into the phone is an option”
Aside from SIM manufactures, who are naturally against crippling their own business, (It’s estimated 5.2 billion SIM cards were sold globally in 2014) the major opposition to the switch appears to be network operators.
Communication giants want to keep users on the SIM card because it gives them the chance to tie customers to their network.
Anyone who’s changed mobile networks will know SIM swapping and number transferring is a mild ordeal in itself. Critics believe that the networks are keeping the SIM alive to prevent an all-out customer grabbing war.
So what’s the alternative?
As SIMs are effectively just a complex ID card, the actual circuitry nature could be very easily replaced by safer and simple codes.
DR Kuhn believes we’ve had the technology available to replace SIMs for years.
User IDs and password directly input into the phone is an option – just as we do to access WiFi,’
Unlike 1991 modern cryptographic techniques mean that passwords don’t need to be as long as they used to be. Simple 5 digit words or codes can effectively generate complex ‘unhackable’ passkeys.
Why should we move now?
Aside from the security and autonomy from networks, ditching the SIM would allow users more freedom.
Users could easily switch tariffs or providers if they went on holiday, as to not incur roaming charges. Or they could have multiple pay-as-you-go accounts on one phone, allowing then to switch if a better offer came up with a different provider.