BlackBerry Messenger 'used to perpetuate riots' in London

Summary:London is besieged with rioters; a city under attack by its own people. Is the BlackBerry perpetuating violence?

LONDON -- Riots and violence are spreading throughout the British capital: initiated by the killing of a man by armed police in Tottenham, north London, and perpetuated throughout the city by seeming discontent at the current government.

Having said that; frankly, nothing is quite clear.

Burnt out police cars, London buses and buildings, the throwing of stones at police and widespread looting. London is under siege -- by its own people.

Many have turned to social networking sites, like Twitter and Facebook, to vent raw emotion and to report the events currently ongoing. But the BlackBerry seems to be the weapon of choice for many -- using in particular the BlackBerry Messenger service -- predominantly used by younger people.

(Image via Flickr)

Just before the weekend, I suggested the younger generation should leave the BlackBerry behind; either forget it for the back to school season, or simply to ride out their contracts and find something new.

However, the encrypted and private nature of BlackBerry Messenger is being reported in the press today as one of the sole methods of sending secret messages to other BlackBerry users, in a bid to continue the violence on the streets of London.

One member of the public reported a short while ago on the BBC News channel: "There was a BlackBerry message going around, saying: '4 o'clock we'll be meeting outside Lewisham train station'."

According to Ofcom's recent study, BlackBerry handsets are the most common for British teens -- with 37% of teenagers aged 13-18 owning one.

PINs -- the Personal Identification Number -- isn't just for your chip-and-pin credit or debit card. Used as a unique identifier for each BlackBerry device, PINs can be spread on other social media sites to connect with one another. It is like a phone number, except limited for the BlackBerry range.

Sending PIN messages is a secure and encrypted way of transporting text from one device to another -- regardless of whether you are using the corporate BlackBerry Enterprise Server, often limited to enterprises and corporations.

Court-issued warrants could be used to access PIN and BlackBerry Messenger text if necessary, but as the riots progressed from Friday night onwards and continue today, law enforcement cannot keep up.

Having said that, the UK arm of Research in Motion is "stepping in" to help law enforcement wherever possible, the company said on its Twitter account.

Further to this statement, Patrick Spence, managing director of global sales and regional marketing at the BlackBerry maker, said:

"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."

BlackBerry Messenger has, for quite some time, been a replacement for text messaging. Acting in an all but exact way, users are able to send mass messages to their contacts through "broadcasting" -- allowing influential users to organise events, send out party invitations -- or in this case, a meeting place to commit acts of violence.

Because of the complexity of current events and the long history that precedes events running up to Friday, it is impossible to know whether BlackBerry Messenger really is being used as a conduit for lawlessness and disorder.

Research in Motion UK's indication, however, does seem to point in that direction.

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Topics: Mobility, BlackBerry, Hardware, Mobile OS

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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