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Uncategorized By Joseph / October 3, 2012

Phones Switch Off | How It Was Done, Why and What Next


On Sunday night, many around the country slept uneasy; not knowing whether their phone was among the 1.5 million handsets that the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) had directed switched off.
The switching off exercise that started on Sunday midnight has seen 1,540,000 fake phones go off the grid completely – cannot connect to any network; cut off from all communication – texts, calls and data.
Safaricom blacklisted and blocked 680,000 phones from its network, Telkom Orange locked out 75,000 phones while Airtel blocked 740,000 phones. YuMobile independently confirmed that it had switched off about 45,000 phones. – The Daily Nation

There have been theories and debates as to the switching off of the phones, with many asking – Why now? Is there a bigger Government agenda? What happens next? What about dealing with the root of the problem first? Why do taxpayers have to have to finance the war against the counterfeits? Shouldn’t it be the handset makers financing this war since it hits them directly? And why should a citizen who bought the phone with his hard-earned money now have to buy another phone to due the inadequacies of bodies such as the Kenya Bureau of Standards? What IS a fake phone?

How was it done?

“…CCK had sent each operator a “global” list of 588,000 counterfeit phones at the weekend, from which they had to pick and block… This was over and above the phones that were on each operator’s list and was meant to prevent users from swapping SIM cards from one operator to the next and “reactivating” phones that had been switched off by a rival operator – Business Daily.

Yes, But How Does it Actually Work?

The IMEI Database

The GSMA maintains a unique system known as the IMEI Database (IMEI DB), which is a global central database containing basic information on serial number (IMEI) ranges of millions of mobile devices (e.g. mobile phones, laptop data cards, etc.) that are in use across the world’s mobile networks. The IMEI is a 15-digit number that is used to identify the device when it is used on a mobile phone network. The IMEI must be unique for each device, so there needs to be a way of managing allocations of IMEIs to handset manufacturers to ensure that no two devices use the same IMEI. The GSM Association performs this role, and records all of the IMEIs that are allocated to mobile device manufacturers in the IMEI DB.

Most mobile network operators are GSMA members, and so have access to the IMEI DB. This means that for example, Safaricom can use the information in the IMEI DB to determine what type of devices their customers are using, what features they support… that’s how come mobile operators know what services to offer or support to subscribers.

IMEI Database

The IMEI DB also supports what is known as a “black list”.

The black list is a list of IMEIs that are associated with mobile devices that should be denied service on mobile networks because they have been reported as lost, stolen, faulty or otherwise unsuitable for use… IMEI DB acts as a central system for network operators to share their individual black lists so that devices denied service (blacklisted) by one network will not work on other networks even if the SIM card in the device is changed.

Network operators who deploy Equipment Identity Registers (EIR) in their networks use them to keep their own lists of blacklisted lost or stolen phones. Operators’ EIRs automatically connect to the IMEI DB to share their latest lists of blacklisted devices with other operators. The IMEI DB takes the black lists from the various operators around the world that are connected to system and it compiles the data into one global black list. – GSMA

When a network operator EIR subsequently connects to the IMEI DB, it downloads the latest global black list (or a national or regional subset of the global list) for its own use. By loading the IMEI DB black list onto the local EIR, all handsets reported as stolen on other connected networks up to the previous day are now also capable of being blocked on that network.


Big Brother, Theft

At any one time, your mobile network operator (MNO) knows where you are. So can the law authorities. Operators and law authorities can use this number to track your phone, including right down to where you are standing.

Scary? Probably. If you’re a terrorist, a law authority knowing where you are is not an ideal situation to find yourself in. But if your phone has been stolen, then it just might be comforting to know that blocking this IMEI number means that no one will be able to use your handset.

As GSM and 3G devices have become more sophisticated and more expensive, they are also unfortunately more attractive to thieves recent years have seen an increased need for the IMEI DB to be used as a tool to combat handset theft.

Security Threats

Since January Kenya has been rocked by a series of grenade attacks – 28 in total as of September. The Kenyan security forces believe that the blasts are carried out by Al-Shabaab . – a militant group.

Mobile phones have been among the tools that terrorists use to remotely detonate explosives, by calling or texting the handsets, or calling their counterparts to allay instructions.

No wonder then – seeing the increased attacks and the terrorists use of mobile phones that the Government is eager to counter these attacks, [if only] by pinpointing the terrorists’ location using their mobile phone.


The IMEI is only used for identifying the device and has no permanent or semi-permanent relation to the subscriber. Instead, the subscriber is identified by transmission of an IMSI number, which is stored on a SIM card that can (in theory) be transferred to any handset. However, many network and security features are enabled by knowing the current device being used by a subscriber.

What is a Fake Phone?

Anyone can find out whether their phone is fake or not by dialing *#06#. This number works for all devices. The thing is, even ‘fake’ phones have an IMEI number, so this is not an entirely effective way of telling whether your phone is fake or not.

But just to dispel doubt, here’s the story of how fake phones from China are actually made:

Where do Fake Phones Come From?

Shanzhai ji:

 … Companies leverage a brand name or luxury product illegally, build a cheap imitation version and sell it at a lower price. This bustling Shanghai tech market is full of Shanzhai electronics and is typical of malls that can be found across China. In the case of Shanzhai mobile phones, or Shanzhai ji, it’s big business. In 2008 it was estimated that more than 80 million Shanzhai phones were produced in China and constituted around 20 per cent of the domestic market. Half of the Shanzhai phones produced were exported to markets such as India, Eastern Europe, Africa, South East Asia, the USA and even Australia.

While the phones may seem like a good deal, they come with a few catches: the software is often clunky and hard to use, there’s no warranty expressed or implied, the phones may pose a health hazard because they don’t have to pass through any official testing and may not adhere to the relevant safety standards, and they are illegal.

Shanzhai phones destined for foreign countries are smuggled over lax borders where they bypass government taxes, circumventing safety checks and regulations. Bypassing these overheads and using cheap and accessible hardware with pirated software — usually Windows Mobile — results in a decent profit for those in the Shanzhai phone food chain.

Why are Fake Phones Bad?

Fake phones are substandard, not tested or standardized, harmful… duplicate IMEI’s and as a result, makes it difficult to trace in case of criminal activities.

But, there’s a catch. Switched off phones can still be re-activated.

Legalizing Your Fake Handsets:

In 2009, when India blocked about 24 million users using fake Chinese handsets, there was a program called GII (Genuine IMEI Implant) that allowed users to legalize their phones and start using them again. Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and Government of India supported the program. It cost Rs 199 to implant a new IMEI on the phone.

Some Questions Remain

-       If it is the IMEI number that makes a phone illegal, can implanting a valid IMEI legalize it?

-       Is it a criminal offence in Kenya to change the IMEI of a phone or possessing equipment that can change it? In UK (Mobile Telephones Re-programming Act) and Latvia, it is.

Many say that it is only a manner of time before one bright chap figures out how to unblock the blocked phones – if they haven’t already. This would render the Government’s efforts vain, similar to India’s situation in 2009:

Many subscribers were switched off, (24 million); the import of Chinese mobile phones without a valid IMEI number was banned in 2011, over concerns that it was difficult to track these phones which they believed terrorists were using to set off bombs and explosives. 

But by September 2012, despite these measures, the import of unbranded Chinese phones grew four-fold in three years…

Kenya Bureau of Standards – the silent partner

Is it CCK that tests and approves all phones, or does this fall under the mandate of the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS)?

The standards and quality assurance body has had its fair share of controversies, accusations of incompetency from the public it exists to serve. Cases of substandard goods such as cosmetics, electronics, batteries, foods go undetected in many shelves around the country, with many bearing the KEBS seal of quality – printed in the outskirts of Nairobi along the famous River Road, Kenya’s equivalent of China’s Shanzai.
Kenya Bureau of Standards LogoIt is the duty of KEBS to inspect all goods entering the country, including phones. It begs the question, how did over 800,000 phones enter the country? Does KEBS electronics, engineering and technology inspection department have the necessary equipment to test quality of phones? What kind of regulations exist in the import of phones?


Reasons for the switch off: 
  • 2012 Terror attacks security threats
  • Monitoring and Tracking
  • Help authorities to track use and sale of phones
  • Loss of revenue from Import Duties
  • Fakes = Health Hazard

Author : Joseph

A USIU trained journalist & an aspiring animator Joseph thrives behind the camera. He is a still photography and videography aficionado. Joe is currently the director/editor behind African Tech Bits, an iHub production that features start ups in the tech scene. This Canonite can mostly be seen at the iHub in the company of his Canon 550D.

  • Steve Song at 17:06:18PM Thursday, October 4, 2012

    Hi Lillian,

    Great article highlighting an important issue. My only quibble with the article is that I think it is important to separate the issues related to device manufacture and approval which has everything to do with the IMEI number and the issues around identity and surveillance which has more to do with the IMSI number and SIM as you correctly point out.

    As such blocking IMEI numbers has little if anything to do with security as terrorists or criminals have no particular bias to using fake phones. I would also be wary of the argument that if you are not a terrorist, you have nothing to fear from surveillance. It assumes that governments will always use surveillance in the public interest and/or that it will never be abused by elements within government outside of prescribed uses of that information.

    Blocking devices based on IMEI numbers is a legitimate response by government and the regulator to ensure that devices conform to national safety standards. However it is also worth asking the question of why there are so many counterfeit phones in Kenya. Do high import tariffs on mobile phones contribute to the counterfeit phone market?

    Finally, on a related note, I think the mandatory registration of SIM cards is a practice has not been debated at all from a privacy perspective. The rationale that mandatory SIM card registration assists in crime investigation and leads to a drop in crime has not been backed up by any evidence that I am aware of. This needs to be balanced against the potential for using this information to compromise individual right to privacy. More about this at

    Government and regulator decisions like IMEI blocking and mandatory SIM registration are issues that deserve public scrutiny and debate. Hats off to you for addressing this important issue.


  • Martin at 14:24:05PM Thursday, May 2, 2013

    What of a Stolen laptops,
    Are the Data Cards visible to the ISP providers once the laptop is connected to the Internet .
    Can a retrieval of the logs show the particulars of the user ?

  • ian munyingi at 11:27:23AM Thursday, June 13, 2013

    Hae .Great article. Anyway how do i join ihub am currently planning to join university on sept to take comp science

  • John Hurley at 12:49:23PM Tuesday, June 25, 2013

    Your Q&A raises good questions but does not adequately answer them.

    What is a Fake Phone?
    Every phone has an IMEI and if you remove the battery you can see it printed inside the phone.
    Alternatively, without turning the phone off, you can dial the code *#06# (as you described) and the IMEI is displayed on the screen.

    Different sections of the IMEI indentify the manufacturer, the factory and the model of phone.
    Already in the late 90s, “cloned” phones began appearing in the market.
    A single phone made by a US or European manufacturer would be replicated down to the last detail by a manufacturer in the far East.
    As these cloned phones were sold cheaply all around the world under a different brand name, several hundred “clones” could turn up on a network all with the same IMEI.
    In networks where EIRs were operational, if one person reported their cloned phone stolen, the operator would have to blacklist their IMEI.
    Suddenly 200 people would find they could no longer user their phones.

    Many European operators chose to switch off their EIRs in the late 1990s. Many were not sharing lists via the GSMA’s Central EIR so stolen phones could just be used on another network or in a different country. Blacklisting stolen phones only hurt the Operator’s own revenues. (Blacklist a phone = lose a subscriber.) So they stopped doing it.
    However, the market for stolen and cloned phones burgeoned and became associated with organized crime. Law and order and telcoms regulators began to pressurize operators to re-instate the EIRs.
    Operators discovered that the EIR was a good way of tracking which subscribers had which types of phones in their networks. By storing the IMSIs using each IMEI, they could target subscribers with older phones with upgrade promtions, thereby reducing the complexity of some service settings in the network.
    So once operators have an monetary or regulatory incentive, they begin using EIRs again.

  • John Hurley at 13:06:53PM Tuesday, June 25, 2013

    In creating a cloned phone the original handset is destroyed. So when clones are blacklisted , there won’t be some original “honest” purchaser out there whose phone no longer works.
    Once Operators begin to see the same IMEI appear many times they may add that IMEI to the blacklist (or greylist) on the EIR.

    If a handset manufacturer were release onto the market a phone whose deign or manufacturing process had not received approval from the GSMA, its IMEI would not contain a recognized approval code (TAC).
    EIRs should block all phones with IMEIs that do not include such approval codes.
    A cloned phone does have an IMEI with an approval code (but it is one that was granted to a different manufacturer).

  • Bertelsmann Future Challenges » Future Day Part 2 – Hear what they say but pay more attention to what they don’t! at 16:59:25PM Wednesday, July 10, 2013

    [...] off around 1.5 million fake mobile phones in Kenya. The following is part of their explanation of why it was done: “Mobile phones have been among the tools that terrorists use to remotely detonate [...]


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