Stealing SIM Cards from Traffic Lights
Johannesburg installed hundreds of networked traffic lights on its streets. The lights use a cellular modem and a SIM card to communicate.
Those lights introduced a security risk I’ll bet no one gave a moment’s thought to: that criminals might steal the SIM cards from the traffic lights and use them to make free phone calls. But that’s exactly what happened.
Aside from the theft of phone service, repairing those traffic lights is far more expensive than those components are worth.
I wrote about this general issue before:
These crimes are particularly expensive to society because the replacement cost is much higher than the thief’s profit. A manhole is worth $5–$10 as scrap, but it costs $500 to replace, including labor. A thief may take $20 worth of copper from a construction site, but do $10,000 in damage in the process. And the increased threat means more money being spent on security to protect those commodities in the first place.
Security can be viewed as a tax on the honest, and these thefts demonstrate that our taxes are going up. And unlike many taxes, we don’t benefit from their collection. The cost to society of retrofitting manhole covers with locks, or replacing them with less resalable alternatives, is high; but there is no benefit other than reducing theft.
These crimes are a harbinger of the future: evolutionary pressure on our society, if you will. Criminals are often referred to as social parasites, but they are an early warning system of societal changes. Unfettered by laws or moral restrictions, they can be the first to respond to changes that the rest of society will be slower to pick up on. In fact, currently there’s a reprieve. Scrap metal prices are all down from last year—copper is currently $1.62 per pound, and lead is half what Berge got—and thefts are down too.
We’ve designed much of our infrastructure around the assumptions that commodities are cheap and theft is rare. We don’t protect transmission lines, manhole covers, iron fences, or lead flashing on roofs. But if commodity prices really are headed for new higher stable points, society will eventually react and find alternatives for these items—or find ways to protect them. Criminals were the first to point this out, and will continue to exploit the system until it restabilizes.