If BBM is helping rioters, RIPA will catch them

Summary:With RIM's BlackBerry Messenger rumoured to be the mechanism used to orchestrate the riots and looting in London over the last few days, there have been rumours across Twitter about RIM's relationship with UK law enforcement, which RIM answered by stating it would comply with police requests.

With RIM's BlackBerry Messenger rumoured to be the mechanism used to orchestrate the riots and looting in London over the last few days, there have been rumours across Twitter about RIM's relationship with UK law enforcement, which RIM answered by stating it would comply with police requests.

Some have speculated that BBM's secure nature means that messages and senders can't be handed over to the police, while others have said that RIM will be shutting down BBM overnight to prevent messages being sent to organise further attacks and gatherings.

It's time to put my speculation hat on and make a few educated guesses about just what's going on, having built and run the tech side of a national ISP, and having dealt with law enforcement relationships when I worked on one of the largest web mail services.

Certainly if I was the intelligence branch of the Metropolitan Police I would have sent someone over to RIM's UK offices as soon as it was confirmed that BBM messages had been one of the tools rioters had used, with a signed Regulatory of Investigatory Powers section 49 letter. RIM would be required to hand over message data to the police, allowing them to use traffic analysis to show the spread of messages and between which BlackBerry PINs. There'd be no need for RIM to unencrypt data - the traffic patterns would be all the police needed to track down message sources and the devices associated with those messages.

Once the police know what devices to track there'll be another batch of RIPA letters turning up at mobile operators across the UK, asking for location data. It's all standard procedure for an intelligence-led modern police operation. The ISPs and operators will have procedures in place, and may well have started data collection as soon as the trouble began in Tottenham on Saturday.

"Ah," you might say, "So why haven't RIM and the mobile operators said that's what's going on?"

There's another part of RIPA that comes into play as soon as an organisation or individual gets a section 49 letter. Section 54 is one of the bits of RIPA that most people don't know about, but it's one of the more important parts of the Act, as it allows any investigating body to ensure that an operator can not tell anyone that it's responding to a RIPA request - and there have been cases where breaking section 54 restrictions have led to court and jail time.

So that's why you're not going to hear anything from RIM or the mobile operators about how and why they're working with the police. It's not that they won't tell you, it's that they can't.

Of course this is all speculation and guesswork, but if I was a rioter using BBM to plan a looting spree, well, I'd turn my phone off now. Though it's probably too late...

Simon Bisson

Topics: Windows

About

Born on the Channel Island of Jersey, Simon moved to the UK to attend the University of Bath where he studied electrical and electronic engineering. Since then a varied career has included being part of the team building the world's first solid state 30KW HF radio transmitter, writing electromagnetic modelling software for railguns, and t... Full Bio

About

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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