On BlackBerry Messenger and the London riots

Every time anything newsworthy happens, concerned citizens take to social networks like Facebook and Twitter, spreading text, images and videos.

When riots hit London’s streets, the buzz was not only spread on Facebook and Twitter, but surprisingly, via BlackBerry Messenger.

BlackBerry’s signature messenger feature (BBM) is a free real-time messaging service built into BlackBerry devices, allowing users to communicate one-on-one or in group chats. It’s been reported that many of those involved in the rioting used BBM to organize and spread word of Mark Duggan’s death: the spark that prompted the riots.

Immediately before his death, Duggan used BBM to send his girlfriend a message stating “The Feds are following me.”

After being killed by police, questions about whether Duggan was unjustly shot took to BBM like wildfire, fueling rioter’s anger who then attacked the local Tottenham police station.

As violence broke out on the streets, citizen journalists took to Twitter and Facebook sharing pictures, videos, and descriptions of the riots – a secondary action to the action originally organized via BBM.

BBM is a particularly interesting method of communication because it’s free, but more importantly it’s private. Of course, police can peak into happenings on the BlackBerry Enterprise Servers (to a certain extent), provided they receive proper probable cause and court documents.

Nations like the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia and India have all struggled with these rules and threatened to ban BlackBerry because RIM refused to give authorities license to monitor day-to-day conversations. BBM has been called by many a “shadow social network” popular amongst criminals because of the privacy of its communciations.

As Apple and Android phones gain popularity, one of BlackBerry’s biggest selling points remains the security of communications on the devices, making it popular for business use. For this reason, RIM has refused to hand over customer codes to many nations in order to protect user communications.

Responding to the heat of the London riots, BlackBerry UK told Jerome Taylor, “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.”

The company added, “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.”

Surely BlackBerry will hand over information with the proper court documents, but giving the government full access to BBM chat logs seems out of the question, at least, based on RIM’s previous actions.