Blackberry, riots and terrorism: The UK’s got it very wrong

One thing must be clear to everyone: BlackBerry devices are not responsible for the attacks. Weapons don’t kill people. People kill people! With or without BlackBerry devices. They don’t care if they use a Russian AK47, a German G36, an American M16 or the butcher’s knife from the friend next door.

Mumbai Terrorists were equipped with BlackBerry smartphones, 2008

When authorities cut the cable feeds to the hotels where the terrorists held over 200 hostages, they relied on another piece technology to monitor the police response and the world’s reaction to the attacks: BlackBerrys. Commandos were not only surprised to find the devices in the terrorists’ rucksacks, but that they used the internet to look beyond local Indian media for information, watching the global reaction in real-time as well.

Gizmodo, 2008

Research in Motion, makers of BlackBerry, responded with this tweet: “We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.” That seemed to suggest that BBM would not be as private as some of the rioters might have hoped, but RIM refused to say exactly how much information it would be sharing with police.

The BBM connection didn’t stop one of London’s chief law enforcement officials from tarring all of social media with the same brush. “Really inflamatory” messages on Twitter were mainly to blame for the disorder, said Steve Kavanagh, the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police at a press conference Monday. “Social media and other methods have been used to organise these levels of greed and criminality.”

Mashable, 2011

It’s strange, re-reading some of the articles around the horrific terrorist attack in Mumbai a few years ago and what’s coming out from the recent riots in London, that emphasis then and now is on how the Blackberry contributed to the violence. When I owned a Blackberry, I used it to report on terrorist violence in near real time, so I understand just how powerful it is as a palm held tool for collaboration and situational awareness. However, the knee-jerk reaction against technologies that in fact can be used as much for violence as much as they can for conflict transformation is to believe they only contribute to chaos. This attitude is especially prevalent amongst law enforcement and government officials, demonstrated above by the  deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police in London.

Even before the 2008 November terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the Indian government has started to clamp down on Blackberry services, citing national security reasons. Other countries have followed. The danger of a country like the UK going down a similar route, even temporarily, is that it is then a rather convenient excuse for more repressive governments to increase and sustain their surveillance. This is precisely the danger of Cameron’s stance in response to the use of social media in the organisation of the riots,

“We are working with police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality,” Cameron told parliament during an emergency session prompted by the riots.

The opposition to this incredibly silly approach comes from within the UK itself, and from a surprising quarter,

Authorities grappling with violent unrest should avoid heavy-handed clampdowns on social media and instead try to enlist the help of the public against the rioters, said John Bassett, a former senior official at British signals intelligence agency GCHQ and now a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute… “A much better approach would be to encourage and support individuals and community groups in identifying alarming developments on social media and even speaking out on the internet against extremists and criminals, and ensuring that the police have the skills and technical support to get pre-emptive and operational intelligence from social media when necessary.”

Curtail or disrupt the operation of one service, and other spring up or are used. The telos of Cameron’s line of reasoning is no different to the actions of Egypt earlier this year in the last days of Mubarak’s regime, which cut off all telecoms and internet services to stop protestors from communicating with each other. It’s not the first time the UK has set an alarming precedent. My blog post from last year When even democracies go awry with online dissent notes several instances where the UK, and indeed, other leading liberal democracies, through bizarre practices and policies have provided fertile ground for more violent regimes, like the present government in Sri Lanka, to do as they see fit to censor inconvenient truths online, and the organisation of civil movements based around these issues. It’s justifiable to ask what if any difference there is between Cameron’s blinkered understanding of the role of ICTs in the London riots and this statement from Chavez, not known to be as much a democrat?

Boing Boing reports that after finding himself on the receiving end of widespread criticism and unfriendly hashtags on Twitter, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has announced that he now considers Twitter messages and social networking as terrorist threats.

Distracted by wide screen monitors?

There’s another strange parallel between the ’08 attacks in Mumbai and the riots in London – the fascination with technology. The Pakistani individuals who carried out the attacks in Mumbai were awed by the size of the computer screens they encountered in office buildings as they went on their killing spree, as noted in their communications with each other. High-end hi-fi’s, electronics and computers are what most rioters in London were after.

It’s pretty clear then that it’s not Blackberry’s or anything on the web that resulted in these riots. It’s pretty clear the Pakistani’s who were involved in the ’08 attacks weren’t driven to their actions by 30″ screens in Mumbai, or because of their Blackberry’s. As Wikipedia’s entry on the London riots notes,

Described by one journalist as “the worst disturbances of their kind since the 1995 Brixton riots”, a local resident expressed the opinion that the unrest was associated with poor relations between the police and the black community in London, as well as in other cities with significant working class populations, such as Birmingham, which has been the setting of protests regarding the death of Kingsley Burrell. However, other sources have pointed out that many ethnic backgrounds were well represented among the rioters, and that the rioters “they were predominantly white, and many had jobs.” Commentators have attributed the causes of the riots to factors including high poverty and unemployment, the growing gap between rich and poor, gang culture, and the lowest social mobility in the developed world.

As the Guardian notes further,

These young people have no sense of community because they haven’t been given one. They have no stake in society because Cameron’s mentor Margaret Thatcher told us there’s no such thing. If we don’t want our young people to tear apart our communities then don’t let people in power tear apart the values that hold our communities together.

If the UK’s social disparity is growing, and its multicultural fabric showing signs of fatigue, you can’t really then blame a Blackberry for violence. It can be a vehicle for discontent and disinformation. It can however also contribute to clean up efforts. As London’s stunning cleanup campaign notes, the same technologies Cameron now wants to curtail are those that helped in the aftermath of the rioting, and will over time help in the healing as well as discussions over how this can never be allowed to happen again.

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