Hello! I’m Samantha Stocks.

I’m a writer based in Bristol, UK.

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Mobilising Riots: The Dark Side of BlackBerry Messenger

Uh oh, RIM… BlackBerry Messenger is being used to organise UK riots.

I wholeheartedly agree with the use of mobile and social media in the support of causes (depending on what they are, of course). Take the riots in Egypt earlier this year, for example. Live tweets from people in Egypt spread news worldwide, kept the world as up-to-date as it could be on what was happening, and helped to mobilise protesters to overthrow a leader whom many saw as damaging to the country.

But there is a dark side to mobile messaging.

BlackBerry Messenger played an important role during the protests in Egypt, as those communicating via BBM had a private means of messaging one another without being tracked down by authorities. The BBMs are encrypted, making decrypting the messages or hacking the network a very difficult task. To shut down the BBM network would require access to a completely different set of servers than those used by other mobile devices.

Following these protests, this method of being able to connect communities and urge them to action undetected have understandably unnerved India and Pakistan, and the two governments have requested for RIM to give them the ability to monitor and decrypt emails sent via the phones.

They have good reason to be nervous as BBM also played an important role in the organized terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, in 2008. Now the devices are being used to help organize riots in the UK.

BBM Connects Communities Together – Privately!

Following the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan on of 4th August by police, his family arranged a peaceful protest to take place, but this descended into riots. Since then the situation has only worsened and has spread to other cities in the country.

Via Twitter, police were able to pick up on the fact that people were attempting to target Hackney Carnival and were able to prevent attacks. However, it appears that BBM is behind many of the messages being sent between rioters to help organise attacks, which police are unable to trace.

The Guardian reported that it was shown a BBM broadcast, which read, “Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) f*** the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUT! if you see a fed… SHOOT!”

Another message shown to the Guardian read, “Everyone in Edmonton enfield wood green everywhere in north link up at enfield town station at 4 o clock sharp!”

For many, BBM has become the preferred method to connect to people. Ofcom’s Communication Market report said that 37 per cent of teenagers in the UK use BlackBerry handsets. The messaging service is free, part of a larger community than SMS has been able to provide, and is private.

It is the privacy of the service that is the crux of the problem: authorities cannot trace or read messages sent via BBM, but RIM has agreed to help Scotland Yard in any way they can. They have stated, “We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.”

Who would have thought that providing people with a private messaging service could serve such a damaging means?