Tag Archives: tech

Hon Tumwebaze, Uganda should venture into Outer Space

I am one of the numerous Ugandans who expect little in terms of cutting edge knowledge and proactive initiatives from our distinguished Ministers. A good number of them are viewed as partaking of political rewards as dispensed by the Fountain of Honour.

After being entertained by pedestrian reasoning from the likes of Hon. Anite Evelyn one would be hard pressed to expect anything better from the current lot of ministers. However, I was taken back when I came across a statement that Hon Frank Tumwebaze made in the Parliament of Uganda in response to a query by Hon. Cuthbert Abigaba. I must admit that I’ve had to eat my words and change my attitude abit. I now believe there are some ministers and Members of Parliament worth their salt in Uganda.

The Minister had been tasked to share plans that the Government of Uganda has to tap into the vast opportunity provided by the Upper Air Space. In his response, he made an effort to point out a number of issues that got me and my fellow amateur astronomers excited. While it definitely fell short of many things, we agreed on one thing, it’s a good start and commendable line of thinking.

The use of the term Upper Air Space would literally restrict the kind of information the minister shared, if we are to go by some of the definitions out there. However, I would like to believe that what Hon. Abigaba wanted to know about was basically our plans as a country to tap into the opportunities offered by Outer Space.

The Minister’s full statement is available here in which he points out a number of issues that are being considered both as a nation and Africa as a whole.

According to Wikipedia, Outer space is defined as the near vacuum that exists between celestial bodies. Celestial bodies are natural bodies located outside of the earth’s atmosphere like the Sun, Moon, Jupiter, Mars, the numerous stars and planets that litter the sky etc. Scientists refer to the point of separation between the Earth’s atmosphere and Outer Space as the Karman Line. This is located 100km from the earth’s surface.


Depiction of the Karman line. Image courtesy of Derekscope

Countries like the USA, Russia, China and India are already trailblazing in the space exploration arena and some people have been left asking why we mind so much about investing money in space exploration when hunger and poverty are still rife in our countries.

Uganda has largely been passive in this endeavour and this can be attributed to the overwhelming need to address survival basics for our citizens as well as a general lack of guidance in this regard. A discussion on outer space should not be restricted to satellites and communication technologies. We need to be looking beyond that. Like the explorers of yester-years who traversed the world by ship searching for distant lands and peoples, the opportunities outer space offers us today are;

  • Better monitoring and management of planet earth. We can be in position to track a lot of aspects about this planet including among others weather. This monitoring will definitely help us better manage the resources at our disposal as well as right the wrongs that have been done over the years.

  • Explore alternative planets/locations for settlement. Have you ever imagined that one day man shall be an interplanetary specie? Just like you have Ugandans living in Uganda and others in the U.K, we cannot rule out a time when we shall have humans living on Mars or dwelling in floating cities in space. Earth as we know it might eventually become hostile hence the need for us to establish alternative locations of abode in the universe where we can set up ourselves afresh in the event of a catastrophe on mother earth. You might for example not be aware that 50Km above the surface of the planet Venus, one finds an atmosphere that is very earth like. This could be one good candidate for a space colony through the use of floating cities.

  • The Solar System that we are a part of is just one of the millions of solar systems in the Milky way Galaxy. The Milky way Galaxy is just one of billions of Galaxies in the universe. Have you ever considered the possibility of other intelligent life forms existing elsewhere in the Universe? Sincerely, do you really believe that God only placed man in this universe? We may have been the only ones he made in His own image but we cannot rule out many other human like beings He created that are not necessarily in his image.

If we are to remain relevant to the future, as a nation we need to stand up and be counted. We have to join the Space agenda as fast as possible. Uganda has entry points that can be utilised to get into this arena if only we took time to educate ourselves more on this subject matter.

Located at the Equator with a big water body in the form of L. Victoria, Uganda is an ideal location for a Spaceport (used to launch rockets to space).

The earth is always continuously spinning on its axis. This spin can act as a boost when launching rockets into space. The experience is similar to someone giving you a push before you dive into the swimming pool. The strength of the push determines how fast you get into the pool. Due to the oval nature or the earth, in the 24 hours it takes for it to spin on its axis, a spot nearer to the North or South Poles moves a shorter distance than one at the equator.


Earth’s rotation.

An object at the equator in Uganda already has a rotation speed of 1670 Km/h as opposed to one in Norway at about 800Km/h. Since the surface of the earth is travelling faster at the equator, a launch in the same area implies that the rocket takes off at a faster speed and reaches orbit much quicker. This has a lot of implications towards minimising the cost of launches.

The presence of Lake Victoria as a water body is ideal. These water bodies are favoured near launch sites because they tend to offer a good backup of water supply in the event that a fire erupted at the spaceport. Remember rocket launches are basically controlled explosions. Something could go wrong at the launch pad. SpaceX had a pre-launch explosion in September 2016. John Young (American Astronaut) once said, “Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fueled system in the world, knowing they’re going to light the bottom, and doesn’t get a little worried, does not fully understand the situation.”

Uganda being on the Eastern side of the African continent is also another compelling factor. Most space launches (at least for geostationary orbit satellites) tend to take on the easterly direction during launch. With the Indian Ocean not too far, the stages that eject during flight can drop into the ocean.

Today, our Mpoma Satellite Earth Station is largely idle. It could easily be revived and used to track satellites most of which are largely cycling around the equator.

On the Human Resource front, as a country, Uganda has been acknowledged for having a large youthful population. This coupled by the high numbers of technology graduates being churned out of school is another mouth watering opportunity that awaits exploitation. These brains can be put to use in an elaborate space programme.

ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organisation has not engaged in any major inventions but simply utilised already available knowledge in the public domain to make leaps in the Space arena. They have sent probes as far as Mars at a fraction of the cost of NASA to study more about celestial bodies. This is encouraging news and implies that Uganda can easily follow suit.

For starters, Uganda’s Space Agency can count on the massive backlog of satellite launches to make money that would then fund other activities in this regard. A thorough strategic plan is required prior to taking this leap of faith.

Once again, Hon. Tumwebaze, I thank you for the insight you and your team has shown. I believe there are Ugandans out there ready to work with you to turn this Outer Space fantasy into a reality and appease visionary MPs like Hon. Cuthbert Abigaba. Please join the Uganda Astronomers’ WhatsApp group or the Facebook Page for starters so we can engage from both a civil and technical perspective.

“The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the chance of success is zero,” Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison’s paper ‘Searching for Interstellar Communications’ that was published in September 1959

Let us start NOW!!!

James Wire is a Small Business and Technology Consultant based in Kampala, Uganda

Follow @wirejames on Twitter.

Email lunghabo [at] gmail [dot] com

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ATM Fraud hits Ugandan Banks – Customer Beware

Shamira (Name not real) received the long awaited call confirming her proggie with some friends that evening. Excitedly, she jumped into her Vitz and raced off to the nearest ATM for some money. On arrival, she inserts her card in the ATM, executes her transaction and leaves smiling, looking forward to a fun filled evening.

A few metres from the ATM, a silver Subaru Forester with tinted windows is parked by the roadside and seated inside is a one Kasoma (Name not real). With a laptop and WiFi connection, he’s monitoring the card Skimmer he had just inserted in the ATM machine’s card entry slot. As Shamira inserts her card, the skimmer is able to extract relevant card data which he gets in real time. Then aided by a micro camera mounted inside the ATM closet, he’s able to see the pin code Shamira types to access her money. That’s all he needed.

Kasoma proceeds to make a duplicate card which he feeds with data from Shamira’s Card. He then uses the duplicate card to withdraw money from Shamira’s account and upon her next visit, she gets welcomed by the famous message, “Unable to proceed with transaction due to insufficient funds on your account.”

For as low as US$ 200 you can buy an ATM skimmer on the internet and using a regular WiFi enabled laptop, all you need is identify ATMs that aren’t tightly monitored and you’re good to go.

This is the reality the banking customer is faced with today. A group of Bulgarians was convicted in 2012 after orchestrating this scam in Kampala thereby defrauding many ATM users.

The recent fiasco with Centenary Bank that led to the nullification of all ATM card PINs  followed by the Bank CEO’s statement aimed at calming down the general public as well as silencing the speculation that arose shouldn’t be taken lightly.

In a well calculated and crafted video message, the CEO attributed the bank’s extreme action to a software update process that is ongoing. However, as someone who has dealt with Software and Hardware systems for many years, I am more than convinced that the bank is not being generous with the information it avails the public.

It is a fact that numerous banks are falling victim to electronic crime in Uganda and while some cases have been reported, most are dealt with under the hood for fear of alarming the public as well as diminishing their already strong brands based on trust. The situation is further complicated by the high level of insider dealing.

What is ATM Card Skimming? The copying of encoded information from the magnetic stripe of a legitimate card, making use of a card reader for fraudulent purposes.

Card skimming seems to be the most wide spread form of ATM fraud going on but there are others like;

  • The Card Trapping devices; Where a thin ribbon of Xray tape is inserted into the card slot. The loop it has traps your card and makes it appear like the bank has repossessed it. A ‘Good Samaritan’ then offers to help you and advises you to type in your PIN Code in order to have the ATM card returned. When it fails, you walk away believing that your card has been captured. He then proceeds to remove your card and withdraw your money using the pin he saw you punch in.

  • The Exit Shutter Manipulation Fraud; In this one, you insert an ATM card and punch in the pin in order to get money, select the amount you need and as the dispensation of the funds begins, you place your hand on the money exit shutter for a few seconds triggering the message that there is a fault with the shutter. This then causes the machine to reverse the transaction at the ATM switch by the amount requested thereby crediting your account once again. However, on release of the exit shutter after a few seconds, the ATM dispenses the amount previously requested since it was manually halted during the dispensation process.

  • The Matchstick hack: By inserting a matchstick in one of the keys on the ATM keypad like the Asterix (*), Clear or even Enter keys, a customer will come, insert their card, punch the PIN but fail to transact successfully since the keypad is kind of disabled. Meanwhile the criminal is nearby observing your PIN. Upon failing, the customer withdraws their card and moves on giving the criminal a chance to go to the ATM, remove the matchstick and punch in the customer’s PIN. He then transacts on the ATM account even with the card withdrawn since the machine retains the card’s details for some time.

  • By pressing a special sequence of buttons on the ATM keypad, some ATMs can be placed in the privileged ‘Operator Mode.’ While in this mode, numerous variables can be altered with the most prominent one determining the denomination of the bills loaded into the machine’s currency cartridges. Once done, one then proceeds to make the ATM withdrawal and by fooling the ATM into dispensing Ushs 50,000/= notes instead of Ushs 10,000/= notes, one is able to get more money from the ATM than their actual recorded funds transaction request.

There are many more frauds out there and as their complexity increases, so does the pressure on the financial institutions increase too. Ugandan banks need to wake up and start protecting their customers.

The largest perpetrators of these ATM scams are organised criminal gangs from Western Europe and as they find it ever harder to penetrate banking systems in Europe and America, they are going to shift their focus onto softer targets in Africa where the uptake of technology is spiralling albeit haphazardly.

How can you protect yourself from ATM fraud as a customer?

  • Familiarise yourself with the ATM machines of your bank especially the card slot entry area. This will help you notice anything that is out of the ordinary before you transact. Keenly observing the ATM machine and its surroundings should be top on your priority list before transacting.

  • As you punch in your PIN, shield your hand and the keypad with your body or the other hand to ensure that any installed cameras do not capture your PIN details. In some cases, heat sensitive thermal Cameras are used which can detect the keys you punched long after you’ve finished putting in the PIN. So, to be safe, you can go the extra mile and cover some form of tissue or cloth on your finger as you input the details.

  • Use familiar ATMs. Be careful which ATM machines you go to. In case you’re not comfortable with the area an ATM is located, then do not transact. ATMs in dimly lit areas or visited late in the night might be more susceptible to fraud.

  • When distracted during an ATM transaction, immediately cancel your transaction and collect your card before responding to anyone who has distracted you.

  • Always change the Card’s PIN from the original number given to you (this number may sometimes be part of the data on the magnetic strip and could be discovered by thieves who have stolen your card).

  • Do not accept assistance or guidance form anyone however helpful they may seem.

  • If your card is trapped or swallowed by an ATM, do no leave the ATM immediately. Call the bank or even better wait until you can see someone else successfully transact from the very ATM machine you’ve used before you can prove that it wasn’t a mere fabricated blockade.

  • Feel the Card entry slot. If you detect anything loose around it, then you have reason to suspect that a skimmer could have been inserted. Call and report your findings to the bank.

In case you’ve already fallen victim, try any of the following;

  • When you discover a card reader or card-trapping device, don’t remove it. Call the bank authorities or Police ASAP because the crooks may be watching the ATM and want to recover their equipment.

  • In case of a lost card, immediately notify your bank and terminate any further transactions on your account.

  • When approached by someone suspicious at the ATM, calmly observe them and keep track of whatever possible detail you can come up with then proceed to submit a report to the bank or the Police.

As for the banks, there is a need to;

  • Setup a Joint ATM Security Team: ATM fraud can’t be addressed in isolation. Ugandan banks need to appreciate this and swallow humble pie. The more they work together to confront this challenge the higher the chances of registering success. Such an effort needs to be complemented by other agencies like the Police CyberCrime unit, the National IT Authority among others.

  • Train ATM Fraud Experts: From basic card skimming to malware use, ATM hacking is scaling greater heights by the day. The banks need to avail specialised training to some of their staff to tackle ATM fraud.

  • Install Machine Alarms. These help alert when the ATM shell is tampered with.

  • Upgrade Cards. From the simple magnetic ATM cards, banks need to make upgrades to the Chip and PIN technology since currently most fraudsters can only compromise the magnetic stripe on the card and not the chip.

  • Raise Customer and Staff awareness of ATM Fraud. This can be done through posters, screen messages and inserts in mailings to customers. Just like openness worked a great deal in combating the HIV/Aids scourge in Uganda, the same could apply to the ATM fraud challenge which is likely to grow in leaps.

Shamira and You can help avert the looming ATM hacking crisis but above all, we need the banks to cooperate and be more open about this problem.

Twitter: @wirejames