London riots: Understanding technology's role in the thick of it

London riots: Understanding technology's role in the thick of it

Summary: The riots in the UK are spreading to other major cities. Technology is being blamed, but exploring contributions made by tech-savvy citizens reveals a polarized perspective.

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On my way through London to catch a flight, this relatively new criminologist wanted to stay longer and speak to more people.

While I wasn't there for long enough to fully gauge the breadth of the aftermath of violence, the image I had vividly portrayed through friends and colleagues living in the various boroughs of London pictured a scene of decentralised chaos lacking any emotion of hate or frustration -- more so anger. Pure, unadulterated anger.

The use of technology has been a focal point throughout these riots -- with social media being blamed for inciting violence, and BlackBerry Messenger as a conduit for the perpetuation of the ongoing riots.

I wanted to explore this further.

(Image via Getty/Daily Mail)

"Politicians and the public have no idea why this is happening", former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, said yesterday. What is clear, however, is that technology has played a crucial part in these riots -- on both polar opposites of the spectrum.

As I write this, over 24 hours later, the riots in London have calmed and fizzled out. The cancer of anger has spread, however, through the veins of Britain's infrastructure to other major cities -- Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham and Manchester.

Social media didn't start the riots.

A peaceful protest precipitated the first riot in Tottenham in north London, but it was not to blame. It's not entirely clear what sparked the first riot, but a number of factors caused the riots to spread.

Social media has since been used to some extent, raking in Twitter and Facebook to help law enforcement deal with the ongoing crisis.

But as many initially reported the use of social media's involvements in the initial unrest, many have been confused between social media and mobile technology.

Social media has been used as a force for good -- see below -- primarily as a source for news and ongoing information. But as Twitter, as the primary example, is ultimately propagated by ordinary people, rumours begin and unverified information can spread in a viral way. This is one of many reasons why governments want to track social media communications.

Technology was used, particularly BlackBerry Messenger, to perpetuate violence.

It wasn't just Facebook or Twitter or any other social media platform that was being used to perpetuate violence across the United Kingdom. It was BlackBerry Messenger -- widely considered to be secure, encrypted and free to use.

But it is not Research in Motion's fault that BlackBerry Messenger was used. Nor is it the fault of Facebook, Twitter or the inventor of text messaging.

RIM said yesterday that it would help the authorities wherever possible, by helping police by decrypting messages when warrants were served. The BlackBerry blog was hacked shortly afterwards in protest at RIM's call for help.

One of the UK's intelligence services, GCHQ, is reportedly currently working to trace rioters involved in the civil unrest.

People are naive -- and do not realise their actions can be traced back to them.

Flickr is being used by Scotland Yard to identify suspects. By uploading images to the image hosting site, police are hoping that the wider community will be able to identify those involved in the unrest.

But could Facebook get involved? Facebook, like RIM and Twitter, has a UK base, meaning that the California-based company must also follow UK law. If law enforcement ask Facebook to hand over data of users -- as they have done before, according to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, then even more technology companies are at the whim of UK law enforcement.

Many are naive to the traceability of communications. Twitter users, along with Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger users, could easily blow the whistle on messages seen and personally received, making the risk that those responsible for violence could be caught.

Some report that citizen cameras have captured more images of looters than the police themselves.

The cleanup operation: the force for good in citizen-inspired sweeping.

Despite the social networking being blamed for helping the organisation of riots -- remembering that these tools are impartial, and it is the person using them in the wrong -- Facebook and Twitter were used to organise the clean-up operation after nights of rioting.

Loosely organised off the foot of the previous night's rioting, many took to the streets after seeing a Facebook group or retweet with gloves, garbage sacks and brooms to help in the effort to clean up their streets.

While social media can be loosely 'blamed' for rioting -- whether or not it did, it can be attributed to the clean-up operation, organised by ordinary citizens with an extraordinary passion for the city they live in.

Twitter will not remove the accounts of rioters: cites 'freedom of speech'.

The microblogging site is not only filled with those condemning the violence and reporting outbreaks of sporadic looting and disorder, but is also being used by those to gloat about their own criminal activity.

But Twitter, in style true to its company ethos, will not close the accounts of those using the site in such a way. Facing criticism over this decision, Twitter insisted, resonating much the same feeling written in a previous blog post, that tweets must flow.

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24 comments
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  • Another Liberty Taken

    We've seen social media used for good in revolutions across the world. We criticize their governments for blocking or removing content, but when the UK or US wants to do it, then it's okay? Just like the liberties we lost when the Patriot Act passed, we let fear overshadow freedom again.
    Karllhughes
    • RE: London riots: Understanding technology's role in the thick of it

      And thank goodness that Twitter stayed strong to defend free speech.
      Karllhughes
      • RE: London riots: Understanding technology's role in the thick of it

        @Karllhughes This was not "freedom of speech," this is inciting and coordinating criminal activity. There is a difference.
        KiplingKat
    • RE: London riots: Understanding technology's role in the thick of it

      @Karllhughes It's not about 'blocking or removing content' more akin to gathering electronic evidence.
      AndyPagin
    • What revolutions?

      Egypt is a military dictatorship. Libya is a civil war between a military dictatorship and a bunch of muslim terrorists, Iran is still a military dictatorship with a lot of dead protestors. Syria is a bloodbath with the military dictator killing protesters. Feel free to cite the great explosion of freedom driven by twitter and social media.
      baggins_z
      • Good points; there are tools that can be used by both the good and bad

        actors.

        The bad actors always spoil the good that can come from certain tools.
        adornoe
      • RE: London riots: Understanding technology's role in the thick of it

        @baggins_z Don't be on the losing side. Nothing new about that; but being smarter about where, whether and how you brag about your involvment probably is.
        Lazarus439
    • RE: London riots: Understanding technology's role in the thick of it

      @Karllhughes: Generally agreed but this is certainly no revolution. The thugs aren't targeting (for the most part) government buildings but ordinary citizens. Hard working people who're just trying to make a living.

      Take the 89 year old man whose barber shop was trashed, purely because it was in the way. He'd had a business there for 45 years.
      bradavon
    • RE: London riots: Understanding technology's role in the thick of it

      @Karllhughes
      "British officials believe social media, particularly BlackBerry messenger, helped to ignite and organize rioters in Britain, but experts say such tools are now a fact of life and simply alternative forms of communication ? for good or evil."
      "It's ubiquitous technology," ... "It's everywhere."
      "The social media aspect is actually a distraction from deep-rooted issues and the real story, which is chronic economic malaise and the growing disparity between rich and poor in Britain, just as was the case in the Arab uprisings"
      from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2011/08/10/social-media-riots.html
      SinfoCOMAR
    • Which of YOUR liberties did you lose under the Patriot Act?

      BTW, knives are legal too, but they can become weapons to commit crimes, and at that point, the can be confiscated as evidence. Same with social media. There are millions of things that are legal and not harmful, unless in the hands of those who are willing to commit crimes using them.
      adornoe
  • RE: London riots: Understanding technology's role in the thick of it

    Can UK police catch rioters by monitoring text and BBN messages and triangle GSM phone locations?
    tamas.rudnai
    • RE: London riots: Understanding technology's role in the thick of it

      @tamas.rudnai@... In short: not really. The legalities of doing this are complex -- and it would require a court issued warrant. Plus, they would have to know which phones to tap, and even by this, they would have to get another warrant to get information out of RIM for them to do it. It's complex and difficult. Only in utter emergencies is it used.
      zwhittaker
  • "The smartphone: law enforcement's best friend."

    I heard this line used by a "police officer" on a TV drama I had on last night.
    Userama
    • "The smartphone: law enforcement's best friend."

      @Userama And we all know how accurate and true-to-like those are....
      Lazarus439
  • RE: London riots: Understanding technology's role in the thick of it

    Please explain to me how, if this is an uprising of a "deprived" underclass, how do they afford the Blackberries and associated monthly bills? Or are smart phones and data plans a lot cheaper there than here?
    wkulecz
    • In a word, parasites.

      @wkulecz Parasites tend to have an unlimited supply of nutrients. Poverty is defined as the least prosperous 5%. Real hardship scarcely exists in England.
      peter_erskine
      • Until they kill the host.

        nt
        baggins_z
      • Or until they irritate the host so much ...

        @peter_erskine@...

        that they are swatted!
        PassingWind
    • RE: London riots: Understanding technology's role in the thick of it

      @wkulecz Yes, an entry level BlackBerry is cheaper than most other smartphones, and with "pay as you go" sims, monthly bills can be avoided. Even 3G microsims and 2 gbyte limits can be had for 10 pounds sterling a calender month.
      bargeemike
    • RE: London riots: Understanding technology's role in the thick of it

      @wkulecz

      First of all let me clarify that in most western countries clients are being taken for a ride by the telephony companies. In India I can get BlackBerry service for Rs. 300/= month. - app US$ 6.50 or ? 4/= per month. Which is less than a a days outing on the subway anywhere in the western countries.

      Being able to afford this anywhere in the world is a matter of priorities.
      pmshah9