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Articles

eSims Are Coming to a Phone Near You Soon – Here’s Why This Is a Defining Moment

Matthew Hornsey

6 min read
  • eSIMs currently mainly used by holidaymakers and business travellers
  • But it’s almost certain they will become standard very soon
  • eSIMs appeal to consumers by offering quicker access – and to Telcos as cheaper
  • They represent a big opportunity for tech to be smarter – as long as we are sensible on fraud risk

Currently they’re mostly used by people travelling for work or going on holiday – a handy way to pay local tariffs when overseas rather than being clobbered for hefty international roaming charges.

But eSIMs are going to become mainstream.

It’s only a question of when.

The eSIM tipping point moment is coming

I suspect the tipping point moment is still a year or two away – and will come when either Apple or Samsung announce that they are moving away from having a SIM tray on their handsets at all. At that moment a process will begin which will see eSIMs quite quickly supersede and ultimately replace physical SIM cards almost completely.

In the same way that Bluetooth headphones very swiftly achieved blanket adoption once iPhones no longer carried a jack for wired connection.

eSIMs appeal to both customers and telcos

The attraction is obvious. For the customer, it means instant access to their phone and all its apps rather than waiting 24-48 hours, or longer, for a replacement SIM to arrive by post or courier. And for the phone company, it’s cheaper, quicker and cleaner.

So it is almost certainly going to happen.

And that means that anyone working in or adjacent to the mobile device sector needs to be alert to the looming prospect of eSIMs and how it may affect them.

But the current answer is: we simply don’t know.

a person holding a phone turning on their eSIM

Will eSIMs be safer in a fraud-filled tech landscape?

I like to think that the world will be smart enough to avoid the mistakes that have been made at previously pivotal moments in the development of e-commerce and digital culture. But there’s no way to guarantee the world won’t simply repeat them.

In fact, the eSIM per se is not really the issue – there is no significant difference between an eSIM and a physical SIM. They both perform the same function in the same way, in the sense that all of them have an IMSI and that is both unique and tied to the user’s mobile number.

So any check you can do on a physical SIM-equipped device you can do on an eSIM one.

One handset need no longer have a single identity

The complication comes in what eSIM allows, namely that a single physical device can suddenly become capable of linking to multiple numbers and SIM identities simultaneously – which complicates a lot of existing functions.

At this point in the update of eSIMs, there are both pros and cons.

In the plus column, there is the reduced threat of physical theft: since there’s no physical SIM to steal or swap, eSIMs should eliminate the common fraud tactic of SIM swapping to gain control of a victim’s phone number.

Fraudsters will try to bypass eSIM security

But of course, the fraudsters will already be trying to find ways around this and you can be certain that they will find them. And there are already reported cases of successful attacks.

Simply, say, sending a one-time passcode before allowing an unverified user onto your platform may be an invitation to fraud – if the eSIM that the OTP is sent to has been cloned then that six-digit code will be going to the criminal, not the account holder.

How to ensure eSIM security

The solution is to apply more robust procedures at every stage of onboarding and know your customer (KYC) processes. We will need layers of protection and verification and customer education to ensure it’s not a simple job for the crooks to hack them.

Activation of an eSIM should require going through a carrier’s secure verification process, which may include multi-factor authentication, reducing the chance of unauthorised access.

Using eSIMs makes it more difficult for automated security checks to be certain of what they are seeing. For instance, if you are attempting to sign into a platform giving your ‘normal’ number but the outgoing web call is made from another profile that has another number, there is no way it will be authenticated.

It will also perhaps over time render the concept of burner-type numbers harder to track because you might for example download an eSIM when on holiday and have a new number for a week to avoid costly roaming charges.

Will eSIMs change things radically?

I don’t believe it’s going to cause seismic changes. And this is down to one overarching reason: people will still want to keep their primary number for many years if not forever – it’s a kind of digital signature to most of us – and as long as they do, then the digital landscape won’t suddenly become a maze.

Currently, fraud in this sphere appears to be relatively small-scale and highly targeted so although there have been breaches – and for large amounts – they have not become widespread. They have been aimed at prominent people with particular assets rather than the wider population.

But eSIM fraud will certainly become more prevalent and this means a need for both vigilance and communication among interested parties.

eSIM providers need to talk

For instance, there are currently one or two apps out there offering eSIM services targeted at regular travellers – who currently don’t share data with fraud prevention organisations like ourselves and others working in our field to combat fraud.

It’s in everyone’s interest – particularly, for the integrity of their brand, theirs – for that to change. And quickly.

For us at TMT ID the advent of a cardless SIM future certainly presents an opportunity – and it’s an almost limitless one because global adoption will mean several billions of new eSIMs that will need checking. I just hope it’s as much of a positive for users.

Last updated on July 10, 2024

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