Putting The Sledgehammer to Use

Its been a slightly hectic week involving a bit of travelling and lots of debating in my NYSC Community Development Service Group about the extent of legislation needed to guide the affairs of the group, and the weight of the fines imposed for violating any of our constitutional tenets… we try to organize ourselves after the Nigerian National Assembly.

In real life™, things went on as usual. My main source of internet remains my mobile phone, using the Opera Mini browser. My primary Mobile service provider is Glo, and I switch to MTN whenever there is a prolonged service outage.

Two or so weeks ago, I noticed that Opera Mini didn’t work whenever I was using an MTN Sim card.

About that same time, a good friend of mine posted in his facebook status: "MTN, una no fit win. Naija people are too good for you". An allusion to the fact that MTN had tried and failed to plug a loophole in their Mobile Internet billing platform that so many people were exploiting in order to browse for free. My younger brother also complained to me about his inability to use Opera Mini on his phone. I was unable to give him a satisfactory answer.

How it was possible for someone to browse for free using an MTN sim is quite odd. One could argue that since every bit of data that eventually reached your phone had to pass through their routers and any special software they had to filter and bill such traffic, then it was impossible to transfer data without getting billed for it. But in practice, it was possible to browse off MTN without getting billed if you routed all your traffic through a special combination of proxy servers and port numbers.

That this works strongly suggests that MTN maintains a set of proxy servers for some select clients in order to bill them differently (or in this case, not bill them at all), and some inside person had leaked this information.

There are obvious ways of solving this problem, and even identifying the leak if they have proper access control and logging. They could simply deactivate the old proxy servers and commission new ones with different parameters, which they would try harder to keep secret, or they could bill people based on the unique identifier that each SIM card has. Option one is not a secure way of solving this problem. Option two is slightly better since SIM cloning is not yet a common thing in Nigeria, and seems to be the way all the other networks do their billing.

Today, on the way back to katsina from Mani Local Government, I was pondering how I have basically given up on internet access. Haven’t browsed in a long while, and how the Cafe’s in Katsina aren’t quite appealing. Glo Mobile’s GPRS has also been down since tuesday. I’ll have to switch to my MTN SIM later and check my email at least. I wondered if this was going to affect my personal development in any way. How did I ever survive before the Internet?

Anyway, I got to town, ate up, switched SIMs and loaded ₦200 on my MTN. I fired up Opera Mini, and predictably, it failed to work. I used the Phone’s supplied browser instead, which works just as well, but isn’t so conservative on bandwidth usage, and hence slightly more expensive to use. It worked without glitches. I fired up my chat program "Nimbuzz", which worked flawlessly. Gmail worked as well. I was at peace. But not quite so. Why is everything else working except Opera Mini?

I like to fantasize about the way people get ideas. I imagine that ideas and thoughts are what fill up the empty space in the vast universe, are what you find in-between air molecules. You breathe them when you breathe air, and you’re lucky when they find their way into your brain, to which they are attracted to. One’s intelligence depends a lot on how magnetic their brains are to ideas. The more ideas you can attract to your brain, the more likely you are to find the killer ideas! I am allowed to dream, right?

So, on this sunny afternoon, on Friday the 18th of September 2009, a series of ideas got attracted to my brain. One merely reminded me that Web Browsers have a way of identifying themselves to the web server they are communicating with during the process we call "browsing" or "surfing" etc. This is the user agent identifier string. Ah, yes, that’s why www.nokia.mobi give me an annoying warning when I visit the site using Opera Mini. It tells me to use a supported device, and refuses to show me what I am interested in. I believe that Opera Mini simply tells the server that "I am Opera Mini 4.2", while the phone’s in-built browser says "I am A Nokia 5800 Xpress Music Mobile Phone". When www.nokia.mobi sees that, it shows you only downloadable things that are compatible with your phone. Useful for novices, but rather limiting for someone who knows what he’s after. No problem there.

Another idea crawled though my lungs into my heart, bonded with oxygen in my blood, made it into my heart, and was pumped subsequently into my brain. A-ha!! MTN, having tried and failed to stop people from browsing for free through their phones decided to start inspecting the data passing through their pipes, and discarding whatever was labeled as coming from, or to an "opera mini" type browser. This means in simple terms that you cannot use Opera Mini with MTN.

What has Opera Mini got to do with browsing for free you ask? Well, Opera Mini is the only mobile browser I know, that has the ability to route its traffic through a configurable proxy server. Official Versions do not exhibit this ability in an obvious manner, but there are modified versions out there that tout this feature prominently. Nearly everyone that was cheating MTN was using a modified Opera Mini.

So, this is the third, most horridly ineffective way to get rid of the people eating away all the bandwidth that should rightfully go to the paying clients.

In going down this path, MTN has quite simply blocked out honest folks like me who didn’t care much for free browsing for other reasons. Mine was fear for the security of my data. They have also displayed a remarkable propensity to come thundering down the wrong path towards solving problems. If another browser comes along that allows one to change the user agent string, then this measure will go down like a house of cards. It is not even foolproof. If the proxies are unchanged, then it means that one can still use a computer to bypass the billing platform. There might also be another information leak.

This is one shaky sledgehammer indeed, and someone is trying to kill a fly with it.

Disclaimer: This is merely speculative. I am simply attempting to explain a situation based on the facts I have seen, and educated guesses based on my limited knowledge about GSM networks.

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Random quote: Phases of a Project: (1) Exultation. (2) Disenchantment. (3) Confusion. (4) Search for the Guilty. (5) Punishment for the Innocent. (6) Distinction for the Uninvolved.

2 thoughts on “Putting The Sledgehammer to Use

  1. taking into cognizance recent events what did MTN do wrong that has made Opera mini regain it's widespread successful use?

  2. Opera Mini's popularity does not depend on what MTN does, or does not do. MTN's policy only affects MTN users.

    In any case, they seem to have unblocked it. Last time I checked about 2 weeks ago, Opera Mini worked.

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