India: BlackBerry snooping system underway

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM) has given Indian security forces access to private instant messages. The move follows the setting up of a BlackBerry service centre in Mumbai last February, with official sources reporting that the interception of BlackBerry’s messenger service (BBM) messages will be used in cases where criminal activity is suspected. Law enforcement agents must first seek gain permission from the Home Ministry, before sending a request to the suspect’s operator or RIM for the data it needs. RIM has neither confirmed nor denied the reports.

Social media under the spotlight at Commons select committee

Following accusations that social media were used to play a key role in the social unrest in August, representatives from Research in Motion, Twitter and Facebook came under the spotlight at the Commons Home Affairs select committee this afternoon.

Stephen Bates, Managing Director of BlackBerry’s Research in Motion, Richard Allen, Director of Policy at Facebook and Alexander McGilvray, who is responsible for public policy at Twitter were questioned by the committee, chaired by MP Keith Vaz, regarding the role of social media in the riots which spread across the country in August, and the trio insisted that all three platforms were used as a force for good.

In the midst of the unrest, calls were made to shut down social networking, particularly BlackBerry messenger, as it was suggested that this was being used to organise violence. Cutting off Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry messenger in times of unrest seems no different to the censoring this kind of media experiences in China and oppressive countries over the world.

The committee heard that should it be necessary, all three of the representatives of the social media, who work within frameworks to condone with the law, would not resist closing down social media, but did not feel that it would be necessary.

Bates, Allen and McGilvray all said that throughout the unrest in August, social media were used in a positive way – to contact family and friends to advise that users were safe, to help clean-up in the wake of the riots, and perhaps most importantly as a tool of communication, used to quell and correct rumours. McGilvray said that most of the “retweets” that occurred during and after the riots were corrections of inaccurate tweets, spreading rumours and misinformation.

The representatives from the social media stressed that as long as technology keeps advancing, the police will have to continue to adapt their methods to deal with the situations. Allen compared the developments of social media with the creation of the car – “It took the police time to catch up when thieves began using cars, the same is happening now.”

A key issue addressed by the committee was responsibility. Bates admitted that BlackBerry messenger had been used in a malicious way to organise crime, but stressed the need for balance when addressing the issue.

Allen explained that their focus on identification meant there was an accountability relating to misuse of the platform but said that there were only a handful of cases where this had occurred during the riots. McGilvray said “People come to Twitter to say things publicly and that means there is a different kind of usage.” Allen and Bates advised that they were involved with communications with the police, and McGilvray advised that as Twitter is a public forum, it was not necessary on their behalf.

McGilvray said that to lock down social media in times of social unrest would be “horrible,” stressing once again the good things that arose from the use of social media in the times of unrest.

Keith Vaz advised that there may be times when closing down social media was necessary, asking “Why should the government not use the powers to close down these networks if there is mass disorder and this is the only way to stop it happening.”

What caused the London riots?

It was Twitter. Definitely Twitter.

Except it was BlackBerry Messenger.

Except no, it wasn’t. It was, of course, Grand Theft Auto.

According to today’s Evening Standard, one police constable has blamed the by-now-venerable game for the spread of deplorable violence and looting across London neighbourhoods over the weekend.

As dusk fell people were told to get off the streets for their own safety. “Go home, get a takeaway and watch anything that happens on TV,” one constable advised. “These are bad people who did this. Kids out of control. When I was young it was all Pacman and board games. Now they’re playing Grand Theft Auto and want to live it for themselves.”

Which raises two obvious points. 1) the policeman in question seems to think there were no riots in the 70s and 80s, and 2) He’s never heard that old joke about “If computer games really influenced people, children who grew up playing Pac-Man would have have spent the late 80s running around dark rooms in day-glo colours ingesting funny pills to a repetitive electronic soundtrack”.

Does anyone even play GTA these days?

The blaming games thing has been around for years now (read this excellent 2007 piece by Tim Smith on the topic). It succeeded the “blame the video nasty” trend which reached its pinnacle with the Jamie Bulger murder and the media’s insistence that Child’s Play II had somehow played a part.

The interesting thing about this is that we must apparently always find a new technology at the heart of problems: VHS, games consoles, smartphones… all interactive rather than passive technologies.

The problem with the kids these days, it would seem, is they insist on making their own entertainment.

India orders suspension of some mobile messaging services

Last week the Indian government ordered telecom operators to suspend all mobile messaging services that cannot be monitored by law enforcement agencies, citing national security reasons. The government had given Research In Motion (RIM), the BlackBerry’s Canadian manufacturer, until 31 January to provide it with access to encrypted data on BlackBerry Enterprise Server. RIM says it is unable to do so as it does not hold the keys to the encrypted data. Last year RIM had provided the government with the ability to monitor some of its other services including BlackBerry Messenger and email.