If BBM is helping rioters, RIPA will catch them

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.

SHARE:
TOPICS: Windows
6

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

Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

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.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

6 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • its not that simple they cant use the unencrypted data as there would be no way do tell the difference between riot related messages and non riot related messages
    anonymous
  • You don't need the messages, you just need one device that's received/sent the message, use that to get a hash of the message and use that to determine the size of the message. Then just follow it using traffic analysis tools.

    Traffic analysis is a very powerful network forensics tool, and one most people forget about.
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • I find it hard to believe that all these rioters had BBs to begin with.

    I'm sure that they've all got them *now*, of course! And iPhones, iPads et al. But at the start of the riots? Are BBs that affordable?
    BrownieBoy-4ea41
  • Yes, a Pearl 3G is £10 a month on PAYG...
    anonymous
  • "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..."

    Fortunately most of these people are thick as planks, it wouldn't occur to them that using BBM was risky.
    AndyPagin-3879e
  • @BrownieBoy - any looted phones are not going to be activated (I don't think they'll be activated so they can be tracked as that makes them saleable) and any suspcious sales on Gumtree, eBay, Amazon and so on will be rejected as well. But, yes, BlackBerry phones, despite all the recent talking down of the company, are selling phenomenally well in the UK. in June 2011, according to GfK Retail, RIM was the number one smartphone vendor in the UK, for both contract and the prepay more popular with teens. The BlackBerry Curve 8520 was the best-selling prepay phone in the UK in June - not the best-selling smartphone, but the best-selling phone, outselling Symbian and Samsung and other feature phones as well as Android and other smartphones. BlackBerry has something like 36% share of the teen market for phones. The BlackBerry handsets that sell are the cheaper ones and they're frequently available on family plans where the second phone is free. And then there's BBM itself, which is what makes BlackBerry so popular with teens. It's like SMS, but it's free so there's no limit to the number of messages they can send (no running out of text credits). And it's a true real-time system, with receipts so the message you send at 11pm arrives then, not some time the next morning, and you know it's reached the person you're sending. Enterprise-grade comms for individuals; the purpose to which you put that varies, but it's part of the appeal of BlackBerry (along with the long battery life and compressed data download).
    MB
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe