I’ve been reading countless stories and many Tweets about BlackBerry Messenger in connection with the London Riots over the past few days.
I think it’s time we — as an industry — took a step back and put some rather outlandish and ridiculous proposed strategies to bed.
Most arguments have centred around the ‘youths’ or looters using what appears in some cases to be a systematic approach — with their communications powered by BlackBerry Messenger (“BBM”).
It’s no surprise that the medium of BBM is involved in some way with the London Riots — in exactly the same way the telephone, SMS and even YouTube are involved. BBM enables unlimited super-fast person-to-person communications — that is, you don’t need to pay per message. SMS, although highly popular, requires a per-message charge (or the using of a bundle) so it’s less appealing.
Let’s be clear: BlackBerry is popular with the youth of the UK. Indeed, in June 2011, GfK Retail reported that BlackBerry was the number one smartphone vendor in the UK (for contract and prepay). Not for nothing is the BlackBerry Curve 8520 the best selling prepay phone (note: “phone”, not “smartphone”!) in the UK in June.
Last night, though, I was alarmed to see a raft of tweets claiming BBM was going to be shut down. Somebody re-tweeted this:
@cr So BBM is to be turned off in LDN from 7pm. Great idea if you ask me. #LondonRiots
I immediately wrote back to @cr, asking what the source was. I got no reply.
Just as I was thinking of phoning up Tom or Matt at RIM UK to check, I saw this message from the FT’s Tim Bradshaw:
@tim BlackBerry-maker RIM says that it has NO plans to shut down BBM this evening, contrary to rumours. #londonriots
Tim followed up to an enquiry pointing out he’d spoken to the company’s in-house PR. That was good enough for me.
The inaccurate rumours of BBM being switched off didn’t help the situation last night, with many casual observes agreeing that, this sounded like a rather good idea. Clearly, the looters weren’t glued to their phones as they tried to rip flatscreen TVs off the wall of the Ladbrokes betting shop in Clapham. It’s not as is BBM was uber-critical to their entire ‘plan’.
Lots of young people have BlackBerries. If you’ve got BBM (which anyone with a BlackBerry automatically gets), you can have continuous IM-style conversations with friends all over the world, or all over the city. You can also participate in large group chats. The system — like any other social medium — is ideal for organising disparate groups of people. In the case of the London Riots, it would certainly make sense for some segments of the looters to use the medium of BBM to stay connected.
“So ban it!”
“Switch it off!”
“Nip it in the bud!”
That’s the kind of calls I’ve been hearing recently. If you’re a draconian dictator then, yes. Switch it off. Disable your population’s ability to communicate.
But here in the United Kingdom, absolutely not.
RIM shouldn’t be getting it in the neck for the United Kingdom’s inability to manage law and order.
Last night, by all accounts, thousands of looters ransacked, destroyed and mugged with impunity. I documented this last night. In that post I included a YouTube video showing this taking place. I also speculated that, yes, BBM would be a brilliant platform for managing your looting operations.
This doesn’t mean we should be switching BlackBerry Services off across the UK in response.
Instead the authorities should be using all resources at their disposal to prevent further outbreak on violence. Disabling BBM and forcing interested looters and rioters to use other means of communication isn’t the answer. Switching off the mobile networks, likewise, is most certainly not the answer.
Policing the streets properly, is the answer.
Getting the Army out to crush — and I do mean crush — the mini insurrections outside Carphone Warehouse might well be necessary. Letting these looters get on with it at their convenience simply cannot be an option.
The country won’t tolerate continued lawlessness on the scale we saw last night. I have confidence that the authorities understand this and will adjust their actions tonight accordingly.
Meantime, I’d like to draw your attention to this rather useful post from Simon Bisson over at ZDNet UK. Simon writes about the Regulatory of Investigatory Powers section 49 (and 54) — something we should consider carefully when folk are screaming about switching off BBM. This is a particularly good section from Simon:
It’s time to put my speculation hat on and make a few educated guesses about just what’s going on, having built and run the tech side of a national ISP, and having dealt with law enforcement relationships when I worked on one of the largest web mail services.
Certainly if I was the intelligence branch of the Metropolitan Police I would have sent someone over to RIM’s UK offices as soon as it was confirmed that BBM messages had been one of the tools rioters had used, with a signed Regulatory of Investigatory Powers section 49 letter. RIM would be required to hand over message data to the police, allowing them to use traffic analysis to show the spread of messages and between which BlackBerry PINs. There’d be no need for RIM to unencrypt data – the traffic patterns would be all the police needed to track down message sources and the devices associated with those messages.
Once the police know what devices to track there’ll be another batch of RIPA letters turning up at mobile operators across the UK, asking for location data. It’s all standard procedure for an intelligence-led modern police operation. The ISPs and operators will have procedures in place, and may well have started data collection as soon as the trouble began in Tottenham on Saturday.
So there we go.
I agree with Simon.
BBM data could well be a phenomenally useful source of information for the authorities. Good news.
So please, enough about switching BBM off.