UPDATE 1: RIM just posted the following statement on its official UK Twitter account: “We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.”
“We feel for those impacted by this weekend’s riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can. 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.”
So it would appear RIM is already doing a bit of damage control.
I’ve heard of some very “interesting” uses of BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion’s (RIM) proprietary IM application, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), in the past, but this has to be one of the strangest: BBM was apparently employed by looters and other miscreants last weekend in and around London to organize and further a set of riots that seem to formed over the recent shooting of a 29-year-old man by a local police officer. (Find more information on the cause of the riots here.)
News of the riots, including details on locations and specific events, spread rapidly on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, but according to a report on TechCrunch.com, BBM was actually used by looters to plan further riots and organize participants in the chaos. BBM was supposedly chosen as a tool to coordinate the rioting because of its “closed” private-nature, meaning police and others couldn’t simply log on to Twitter.com to check out users’ related messages and status updates.
BBM users must share “PIN” codes or e-mail addresses to connect, and only after an invited party is accepted can they see the invitee’s messages and status updates. BBM “Groups” can also be formed and used by multiple people to communicate to groups of users—though they must still be invited–and this is presumably how riot information, images and more were spread, after BBM PINs were shared on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.
Looters in London apparently spread information about the riots via BBM Group messages and status updates that were then further spread by additional BlackBerry users.
RIM has come under fire from a number of governments and global organizations during the past few years due to the security safeguards afforded by its BlackBerry products, namely the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). More specifically, the Indian government has demanded numerous times that RIM hand over encryption keys for BES so that it can intercept and read BlackBerry transmissions from suspected terrorists and other “bad guys.” But RIM has repeatedly explained that it cannot provide such keys, since only BES administrators have access to them.
You can bet RIM will also catch some more flack for this latest use of BBM by the London rioters, even though I don’t really think BBM, or RIM, is to blame. Put simply, if BBM wasn’t available, these looters would have used some other means of spreading information to additional rioters. And BBM really isn’t any more secure than Twitter or Facebook when used as it was last weekend in London and without BES; all a law enforcement official would have had to do to gain access to one of the riot-based BBM groups would be to post his BlackBerry PIN on Twitter or Facebook, etc., and request to be added to a related group.
An interesting detail here, however, is that enough riot participants and observers had BlackBerry smartphones, and therefore, access to BBM, to make this form of information dissemination and riot-organization feasible and effective. Without a BlackBerry, you couldn’t gain access to these BBM Groups.
BBM and BlackBerry have a bit of a history in aiding those who want to “secretly” communicate, which can obviously be a positive and a negative thing, depending on the motivations of the people employing it. And this latest use of BBM during the London riots is just another example of a good technology put to bad use.
Al Sacco was a journalist, blogger and editor who covers the fast-paced mobile beat for CIO.com and IDG Enterprise, with a focus on wearable tech, smartphones and tablet PCs. Al managed CIO.com writers and contributors, covered news, and shared insightful expert analysis of key industry happenings. He also wrote a wide variety of tutorials and how-tos to help readers get the most out of their gadgets, and regularly offered up recommendations on software for a number of mobile platforms. Al resides in Boston and is a passionate reader, traveler, beer lover, film buff and Red Sox fan.