As riots continued in London, the role of social media and technology used by rioters is again in the limelight.
The usual suspects, Facebook and Twitter, have come under fire for facilitating the orchestration of the riots, but BlackBerry Messenger is the surprise medium of choice for the rioters.
The riots, which began on Saturday, were triggered by protests against the police shooting of Tottenham resident Mark Duggan, last Thursday.
A Facebook group was created in commemoration of Duggan, and some posts were identified by the police and media as particularly inflammatory. Twitter is also being used by rioters to describe the events, post images and tell of areas they would be targeting.
On Sunday, police spotted tweets about plans to target the Hackney Carnival and the event was cancelled as a result. Scotland Yard issued a warning on Monday that anyone using Twitter to incite violence would “not go unpunished”.
According to reports, deputy assistant commissioner Stephen Kavanagh confirmed that police were monitoring Twitter as part of investigations into the riots.
Kavanagh also stated in a press conference that “really inflammatory” posts on Twitter were responsible for the unrest, adding: “Social media and other methods have been used to organise these levels of greed and criminality.”
It is, however, BlackBerry Messenger that has taken precedence over social networking sites and has been widely identified as the most powerful rallying tool behind the riots.
Many of the rioters favour BlackBerry Messenger over Twitter and other social media, because its messages are encrypted and private, and the service is widely used and messages can easily be sent to groups.
Kavanagh said: “Police have got extensive monitoring of this BlackBerry messaging model and actually a lot of people who are seeing these BlackBerry messages are forwarding them to the police.”
According to last week’s Communication Market Report, released by UK telecommunications regulator Ofcom, 37% of British teens own a BlackBerry handset. BlackBerry Messenger offers a virtually free BlackBerry-to-BlackBerry messaging service, which allows for more covert communication than that allowed on the social networks.
This is, however, not the first time BBM has been blamed for aiding outbreaks of violence. The encrypted messaging service was fingered in militant attacks in India, and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM) gave authorities access to BBM, but claimed it could not provide interception of corporate e-mails on BlackBerry devices.
RIM also reached an agreement with authorities in the United Arab Emirates in order to avoid the banning of all BlackBerry services in the region.
The Guardian has reported that BBM broadcast messages shown to the newspaper called on “everyone from all sides of London” to loot and vandalise shops on Oxford Street. The broadcast also reportedly said: “…if you see a brother… SALUT! if you see a fed… SHOOT!”
RIM responded by tweeting: “We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged the authorities to assist in any way we can.”
It is speculated that RIM may be asked to hand over private information of the communication between rioters to the UK authorities.
Patrick Spence, MD of global sales and regional marketing for RIM, released an official statement, saying: “As in all markets around the world where BlackBerry is available, we cooperate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement and regulatory officials.
“Similar to other technology providers in the UK, we comply with The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and co-operate fully with the Home Office and UK police forces.”
RIM has declined to comment on whether it is handing over chat logs or user details. However, RIM’s “Inside BlackBerry” blog was hacked yesterday by a group going by the name of “Teampoison”. The group posted a warning to RIM not to cooperate with police.
The post said: “You Will _NOT_ assist the UK Police because if u do innocent members of the public who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and owned a blackberry will get charged for no reason at all (sic).
“If you do assist the police by giving them chat logs, gps locations, customer information & access to people’s BlackBerryMessengers you will regret it, we have access to your database which includes your employees information; e.g – Addresses, Names, Phone Numbers etc. – now if u assist the police, we _WILL_ make this information public and pass it onto rioters (sic),” concluded the statement.
Reuters also reports that David Lammy, member of Parliament for Tottenham, has appealed on Twitter and BBC radio for RIM to suspend BBM services.
“This is one of the reasons why unsophisticated criminals are outfoxing an otherwise sophisticated police force,” he tweeted. “BBM is different as it is encrypted and police can’t access it.”
Reuters quotes Northern Securities analyst Sameet Kanade as saying: “RIM will need the directive of the UK authorities and the cooperation of the carriers. Lawful intercept is the only valid legal reason that a carrier and handset vendor can intervene.
Kanade adds: “In terms of actual mechanism, RIM has always claimed that it is unable to de-encrypt/decipher messages routed through the BES or BIS servers. It may be able to disable the routing of messages at best, from what I understand.”
British police have also turned to Flickr to set up a photo stream of images of people believed to be involved in the looting and riots. In a statement, police say: “Operation Withern’s priority is to bring to justice those who have committed violent and criminal acts. As the detailed and thorough investigation progresses we will be issuing photographs of suspects, like those of alleged looters we are releasing today (Tuesday, 9 August).”
The role of social media and technology in the orchestration of the London riots has sparked debate over whether it is simply a smokescreen that diverts attention from the underlying social and economic issues.
The social networks have notably also provided a positive rallying point for clean-up efforts and calls to stop the riots. The RIP Mark Duggan Facebook page has already swelled to close to 26 000 fans, and the display picture on the page now shows an emotive plea to stop the violence. Posts on the page also strongly condemn the rioters.
The @ RiotCleanup Twitter handle has just short of 87 000 followers, and continuously posts information about clean-up efforts. A Facebook page, Post riot clean-up: Let’s help London also has over 18 000 fans and posts updates about various clean-up projects around the capital.
A Tumblr account, Catch a Looter, was also created to collate images of alleged looters. But the creator has since stopped updating the site and appealed to users to rather use Crimestoppers, stating: “The beauty of social media is you can put these things up quickly, and take them down again too, without any cost. Not so easy with buildings, lives and businesses.”
There is also a new Google group called London Riots Facial Recognition, which aims to use facial recognition technology to identify looters seen in pictures obtained from “legal sources”.
For more on this subject, consider attending defenceWeb‘s Public Order Policing conference at Gallagher Estate on October 3-4.