Saturday, 13 August 2011

The BlackBerry riots

Technology and disorder

The BlackBerry riots

Rioters used BlackBerrys against the police; can police use them against rioters?

Aug 13th 2011

AS BRITONS ask themselves what has changed in their country that might have caused these riots, one obvious answer stands out: technology. The digital revolution allows people to organise against the authorities—not just in the Middle East, but also in Britain.

In Iran, it was the Facebook revolution. In Tunisia, the Wikileaks revolution. In Egypt, it was called a Twitter revolution.

In London, it’s the BlackBerry riots.

The communications tool of choice for rioters has been the BlackBerry. It has 37% of the teenage mobile market. Young people like its BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) feature, which allows users to send free messages to individuals or to all their contacts at once. It was used to summon mobs to particular venues. David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, has called for BBM to be suspended.

The rioters use BBM against the police. But can the police use it against the rioters? Research in Motion (RIM), the firm behind the BlackBerry, and the mobile operators hold at least one, and probably two, sorts of useful information. The first is traffic data: who messaged whom, when and from where. Used in conjunction with CCTV pictures, that could well help police put names to faces—though if many of the rioters were using pay-as-you-go phones; it will prove less useful, as it is harder to track their owners down.

Security experts say it is pretty clear that the law empowers police to demand that phone companies hand over traffic information. The Data Protection Act, which normally prevents companies from sharing such information, has a clause for cases where it is clear that a crime has been committed. The legal position is less clear when it comes to the actual content of messages.

Handing content over could, however, cause problems for RIM and the phone companies. Revealing such information to the police could be bad for business; they might be sued for breach of confidentiality. The police could issue warrants, but it is not clear whether they have the power to intercept phone messages en masse.

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