Please — let’s not call these the ‘BlackBerry riots’

August 9, 2011

Here we go again: Young people, rioting in the streets, railing against leadership, using their mobile phones to outsmart law enforcement caught off guard by the nimbleness of cool kids in what would be a B-movie script if it wasn’t unfolding in real time.

But this time it isn’t happening in some far off, ambiguously backward Middle Eastern place. No, this is happening in the homeland of Sir Thomas Moore, Winston Churchill and Kate Middleton.

And, for a pleasant change, the technology being blamed/credited for fueling the fire is neither Facebook nor Twitter, but BlackBerry Message Service — one of the oldest means of mobile-to-mobile text communication, better known among aficionados simply as BBM.

It is, of course, a distinction without a difference. Mobile phones don’t start riots. Sometimes, people with mobile phones do. Sadly, we still seem years away from the time when how people communicate is utterly irrelevant to what they are saying and doing. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Ben Rooney puts it:

… (T)he simple fact is that social media can no more take the credit for the “Arab Spring” than the blame for the “London Summer”. They may have played a role but simply because they are the communication tool of the day. Communication technology is morally neutral.

Still, this comes as a curious variation on the theme. The fact that BlackBerrys are the mobile phone of choice among Britain’s youth (well, at least those prone to this onset of violent street demonstrations) might strike the casual observer as a peculiar factoid. U.K. communications regulator Ofcom says some 37% of British teens have a BlackBerry handset.

And there is another thing: BBM messages are largely untraceable. As my colleague Olivia Solon notes, this privacy aspect makes the handset popular in places where there is, shall we say, less reverence to due process than the UK:

BlackBerry automatically encrypts messages sent to another person’s BlackBerry when using their PIN — this means that the messages cannot be intercepted by a government or mobile network. As such the service has become very popular in the Middle East where it is used to criticize authorities, which explains why Saudi Arabia and the UAE tried to block BBM and other functions last year.

Either way, this is lousy news for BlackBerry, which has been beset by bad news for a while now that Apple and Google has made it a marginalized player, even in the enterprise where it once reigned supreme. For Research in Motion, this is already a daunting image challenge: Fairly or not, their brand is being singled out for enabling riots.

In a Tweet in the midst of all this they have tried to walk a careful line, expressing sympathy for “those impacted by the riots in London” but also saying they were “engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.”

That last bit may haunt them if still-loyal customers who value the messaging flexibility and peace of mind they enjoy with BlackBerrys is compromised in some kind of backlash. Value propositions turn on a dime, even if wireless contracts take a bit longer.

But we need to start ignoring the smokescreen that is the entire subject of how tech is responsible for bad or undesired behavior. That is the stuff of Fahrenheit 451-esque oppressive regimes. Let’s hope there are no calls for any Parliamentary inquiries into the role of tech, or witch-hunt subpoenas for BlackBerry messages.

Churchill would have wanted it that way.

Follow +John C Abell on Google+.

Photo: A fierce blaze guts a store after looters rampaged through a shopping mall in Woolwich, southeast London, August 9, 2011. Rioting and looting spread across and beyond London on Monday as hooded youths set fire to cars and buildings, smashed shop windows and hurled bottles and stones at police in a third night of violence in Britain’s worst unrest in decades. REUTERS/Jon Boyle


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Yes, RIM will take another bashing for providing a service that a certain segment of the market wants. Just because its a secure, encrypted platform RIM is somehow responsible for the riots. Please….

Now, if the was an Apple platform, the police would already know…..

Posted by echotango | Report as abusive

[…] GuardianBlackBerry hacked as UK riots rage onTG -InformationWeek&nbs p;-Reuters Blogs (blog)all 347 news […]

Posted by Hackers Deface BlackBerry Blog Over London Riot BBM Assistance – PC Magazine | Report as abusive

[…] way for teens to communicate (37 percent of teenagers in the U.K. have a BlackBerry, according to a story on Reuters) and messages are usually virtually untraceable.  The system has been used by protesters to […]

Posted by Social Media Playing a Prominent Role in the U.K. Riots – PRNewser | Report as abusive

Why not call them Blackberry riots? That is what they are…flash mobs made up of overindulged young people. They are no better in the U.S. Sickening and no it is not the stuff of Fahrenheit 451-esque oppressive regimes. The truth is the truth. If this is what are future is with gangs running their elders, count me out.

Posted by sophiewonderful | Report as abusive

The abject stupidity and ignorance of the mob works and is still manipulated by sources unknown to them. Ignorance of history is apparent. The ignorant are still manipulated, as always and they never know who does it. The uneducated are the best tools because they have no basic knowledge of history – they just look after their own current needs and as such they are the sacrificial fools who believe whoever has “apparent” more knowledge than themselves.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

BlackBerry poses some real security concerns and we have got the tip from the London riots. For the security reasons only Indian government is thinking to ban BlackBerry services across the country.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

The technology may not be directly responsible but it is an enabling factor in criminality. Fact!

Posted by EdmondJackson | Report as abusive

I can see it now. No one under the age of 18 will be allowed to purchase a Blackberry. I really wonder how these supposed unemployed kids can afford one to begin with. Oh I forgot coddling parents buy it for them!

Posted by Intriped | Report as abusive

They are what they are.

I’ll start calling them “cellphone co-ordinated riots with encrypted messages”.

Posted by jo5319 | Report as abusive

What the UK Government needs to do, is to petition for a court order to ask the cell phone company to hand over all encrypted messages involved in co-ordinating crimes — looting, burglary, vandalism. So the company will be responsible for accessing and revealing the contents of such messages, to facilitate investigation and arrest of the criminals.

You never know. Blackberry sales might go up because of the bad rep — don’t forget the cheating husbands, inside traders, etc.

Posted by jo5319 | Report as abusive

If we are going to call these the Blackberry Riots we should call the U.S.’s war for independence the “News Paper Revolution.”

Posted by Pseudonymous | Report as abusive

first . i would have to say . wow .. the process i had to go through to post a simple comment

And who ever wrote this article . well quite frankly you are wrong . I’m in london on vacation at my summer home, and watching those horrific pictures and videos . just mad me sad.. the fear and terror these hoodlum unleashed on the entire population is quite sad..
I have 2 blackberries and i don’t care if RIM looks through all my messages .. these kids have to be brought to justice ..

To who ever wrote this article .. i hope you drop your political/business agenda and look at the facts .. people in britain will do anything to ensure these people are brought to justice even if it means sifting through everyones messages .soo don’t try to play it off as a crusade against BBM .. its simply the right thing to do ..

Wake up and be more objective with your reporting
everyone knows that a broadcast message can be disastrous when it comes to spreading havoc ..

Posted by obiie | Report as abusive

I think it’s just another technology that people use, bankers, soccer-moms, teenagers, twenty-somethings, if they were that interested;

Besides this misses the point, I’m sure they could coordinate concentrations of encrypted messages to provide a map of incidents, without ever decrypting a single message.

It’s not like rioters are squirreled away or hidden in a dorm-room or slowly strolling around a crowded mall – those aren’t the signals you care about. It’s the fast-moving / slow-moving “street” based messaging you care about.

Signal tracking to some converging location is as good a tool as you need, who cares what the content is.

Posted by markthomson_wi | Report as abusive

I suggest calling it the “BlackBerry revolution.”

Posted by Nettle | Report as abusive

Wonderful, blame the means of coummunication that happens to be de rigeur this decade/century/era instead of the social reasons behind the will to riot.

That’s what tyrannies always do. Fix your social problems, people, not imaginary technical boogeymen.

PS: I don’t care if all I’m doing is exchanging recipes with a family member. Nobody, especially the government, has a right to see the contents of that message. Not in a society that inherently trusts and respects it’s own citizens. And if your living in a society that doesn’t have that trust, well as some screenwriter once wrote, “a little revolution now and then isn’t a bad thing”.

Posted by mik73 | Report as abusive

We are happy enough to get modern technology like BlackBerry which are helping us directly to raise our voice. Let’s not blame technology for what is going in the UK or other places across the world. What we should immediatley do is to correct the wrong things we have in us.

Posted by aimithu | Report as abusive

So when Iran wanted to stop Twitter for inciting riots, western countries all condemn this and force Twitter to remain open.

Now UK want to stop Blackberry and other social services due to its own riots, where is the condemnations? Pure hyprocrisy here.

Posted by prastagus | Report as abusive

@jo5319 Rolls right off the tongue …

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive

@obiie Feel free to give the authorities your messages, and let them tap your phone and rummage through your garbage of your summer home if you like. But I have a better idea: let’s regulate internet access, dole it out like a driver’s license, and let the local police handle it. And also, we can sell phones to people the way we sell guns — which in the UK, means to nobody. That will solve everything, right? Because there was no mob violence before there were BlackBerrys. Sheesh.

Posted by johncabell | Report as abusive