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The UK Riots, RIM and the Price of Privacy

The UK Riots, RIM and the Price of Privacy

As rioters in the UK use devices like BlackBerry phones to exchange messages, Research In Motion says it will help police in monitoring its communication systems. Though its decision has drawn some support, critics question whether assisting police to peek in on personal messages is an invasion of privacy.

By Richard Adhikari
08/12/11 5:00 AM PT

London's burning, and it may lead to a clampdown on social media in the UK.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday suggested censoring social media in response to the violence.

Mobs reportedly communicating in part through BlackBerry Messenger, and later social media sites, wreaked havoc throughout the UK.

Research In Motion's UK office responded to news of the disturbances by tweeting that it would help the authorities in any way it could.

That led to a storm of protest and the hijacking of RIM's Inside BlackBerry blog page by hacker group TeamPoison.

"RIM is in an unenviable position, being forced to be the arbiter between two powerful factors," Azita Arvani, principal at the Arvani Group, told TechNewsWorld.

"On the one hand, they're facing individual users, information privacy values and concerns; on the other, they're facing governments, which legislate the rules of the game for businesses," Arvani elaborated.

RIM did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

The Flames of Freedom, or Madness Rising?

News clips from the UK are eerily reminiscent of those from the Middle East during the so-called Jasmine Revolution, when rioting crowds toppled governments throughout the region, including that of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, who's now on trial.

Rampaging mobs are roaming through the streets of London, Birmingham, Liverpool and other areas, burning and looting buildings, fighting and indulging in other acts of violence.

What's the difference between the rampaging mobs here and the so-called protesters for democracy in the Middle East?

Some of the depictions of the events in the UK might be skewed, Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, suggested to TechNewsWorld.

"I think the framing being seen in some media is incredibly problematic," York said.

The Messenger Makes the Medium

The UK authorities said earlier this week that the rioters were coordinating their efforts through BlackBerry Messenger, which lets users send text messages to anyone else with the service at no charge.

The BlackBerry is the most popular choice among younger consumers, according to the UK's Office of Communications, aka "OfCom."

Almost half of UK teens and more than one in four adults -- who are defined as anyone over 16 -- own a smartphone, OfCom found.

The mobs are also using social media, particularly Twitter, to coordinate their efforts, but BlackBerry Messenger is the biggest thorn in the side of law enforcement because messages sent over that service are encrypted.

Taking Potshots at RIM

After RIM announced that it would work with law enforcement, TeamPoison hit its UK blog site, taking over its landing page.

A shot of the hijacked page, posted on Twitter by Jonathan Fisher, can be seen here.

The page includes a plea to RIM from TeamPoison.

The hackers claimed RIM's actions would result in innocent people being charged and threatened to give personal information about RIM employees to rioters if RIM cooperated with the police.

However, TeamPoison stated it was against looting and attacks on small businesses, and only supported rioters attacking the police and the government.

Helping Police Is a Good Thing

Perhaps RIM might come out of this mess relatively unscathed.

"Almost all governments ask technology companies, including RIM, to assist with access to communications," Cynthia Wong, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Global Internet Freedom Project, told TechNewsWorld.

The real question is whether the UK government is following established legal processes or issuing "clearly overbroad" requests, Wong pointed out.

How much RIM's credibility will be impacted will depend on the nature of its cooperation with the UK authorities, and "it would help if RIM were more transparent about what it is or isn't doing" Wong added.

News that RIM is helping law enforcement locate those who orchestrated the UK riots through BlackBerry Messenger "is actually good press for the company, as the vast majority of British people, especially in London, want these criminals to be brought to justice," Darren Hayes, CIS program chair at Pace University, told TechNewsWorld.

Many recipients of BlackBerry messages have reportedly forwarded them to the police, Hayes remarked.

What About Privacy, Then?

One of the objections to RIM's agreeing to help the UK government is that it impinges on the rioters' right to privacy. However, that stance may not hold up to examination.

The right to privacy in personal communications isn't absolute and can be limited in certain circumstances, such as in the course of a legitimate investigation by law enforcement, the CDT's Wong said.

Further, the right to privacy may depend on who's being targeted.

"There is a tremendous difference between capturing the contents of people's emails, Internet searches, purchases and other personal and working to apprehend individuals involved with arson, theft and violence," Pace University's Hayes pointed out.

"The greater good overrides any claim to privacy," Hayes added.


Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where itís all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeonís Law still hold true?


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