Scotland Yard has vowed to investigate and track down instigators who have been using messaging software and social media in order to post “really inflammatory, inaccurate” messages using the BlackBerry network, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks. The manufacturer of BlackBerry, Research In Motion, said Monday that they would co-operate with a police investigation into the use of their smartphones and messaging network as part of organizing the recent London riots.
However, after Patrick Spence, the managing director regional marketing at Research In Motion (RIM), confirmed contacting the police this fact sparked fears among BlackBerry users that their private messages would become part of the investigation.
“We feel for those impacted by the riots inLondon. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can,” Spence said. Of course, he added that RIM complies fully withUKregulations regarding the interception of communication and co-operates with police when required to by law. RIM has remained silent and submitted no further comments on this subject.
BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) a service developed by BlackBerry to send secure messages between their phones appears to be the most common method used for planning the uprising in theLondonstreets that has spread since Saturday. The riots were sparked from large scale, peaceful protests in Tottenham over the shooting death of Mark Duggan byLondonpolice during a botched arrest attempt.
BBM is a free, private social network designed by RIM to entice financial institutions to use their phones for communication. As a result, the phones encrypt messages sent into the network in order to enhance overall security when using the network. As a result, even if authorities do put their communication interception powers into play, they won’t be able to read anything being sent over the BBM network.
RIM can be legally ordered to hand over information about users suspected of illegal activity; but if the encryption keys happen to be stored on the phones and not in the network, the company cannot open up the messages to show what was said.
Social networking provides a medium for widespread communication
While Twitter and Facebook have been common for organizing popular uprisings in other countries, evidence shows that BlackBerry Messaging “broadcasts” have been common in orchestrating events contingent to the riots. As broadcasts were sent from individual phones to others, the messages were then offloaded onto Twitter and Facebook as the police struggled to keep up with the orchestration efforts.
One BBM broadcast posted on Monday evening appeared to urge protesters to go looting in Stratford, east London. “If you’re down for making money, we’re about to go hard in eastlondontonight, yes tonight!!” it said. “I don’t care what ends you’re from, we’re personally inviting you to come and get it in. Police have taken the piss for too long and to be honest I don’t know why its taken so long for us make this happen. We need a minimum of 200 hungry people. We’re not broke, but who says no to free stuff. Doesn’t matter if the police arrive cos we’ll just chase dem out because as you’ve seen on the news, they are NOT ON DIS TING. Everyone meet at 7 atstratfordpark and let’s get rich.”
Another broadcast implored protesters to “unite and hit the streets” in Kilburn, north-westLondon. On Sunday BBM users were urged to head to Oxford Circus for “pure terror and havoc & free stuff”.
Social networks have become vogue in the organization of protests across the world and for delivering information from regions otherwise inaccessible to traditional media. It’s also become a major function in allowing journalists to follow heavy action via citizen journalism in the midst of the fray. However, these decentralized and private networks serve a powerful purpose allowing groups to out-organize and out-pace the police.
According to the Guardian Steve Kavanagh, the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, said that “really inflamatory, inaccurate” messages on Twitter were mainly to blame for the disorder. “Social media and other methods have been used to organise these levels of greed and criminality,” he said at a press conference on Monday afternoon.
The ubiquity of smartphones and their power as social networking and secret communication services place a lot of extra power into the hands of citizens—but as with most tools they also provide a haven for guiding dangerous actions such as this. Police organizations have already started to respond to this with ill-thought-out policies involving searching individual’s cellphones for evidence of criminality.
The use of BlackBerry Messenger and encrypted communications during the Tottenham riots shows a bit of an arms race between policing technology and policy and citizen use of these networks.