London MP Seeks To Quell Rioting Through Surveillance Of BlackBerry Messages

London MP Seeks To Quell Rioting Through Surveillance Of BlackBerry Messages

Michael Gilburt is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

David Lammy, Member of Parliament for Tottenham, has called for the suspension and surveillance of the BlackBerry Messenger (“BBM”) service after evidence indicated that the popular communication platform helped facilitate the London riots.

According to Lammy, rioters prefer using the BBM service to “coordinate and spread the word of the police clashes, looting and arson” to other platforms such as Twitter and Facebook because the messages are encrypted and difficult to decode by authorities. Accordingly, the UK government has put pressure on Research In Motion (“RIM”), the creator of the device, to assist police in gaining access to BBM messages.

The legal basis upon which the UK government derives its authority to monitor BBM messages involves legislation permitting “lawful interception.” Under the law, RIM can be ordered to provide authorities with information of users suspected of unlawful activity.  Earlier this month, similar legislation was invoked by the government of India to obtain access to BlackBerry user data as part of efforts to fight militancy and security threats over telephone communications.

Among the most outspoken protestors of Lammy’s proposal is a group of hackers known as Teampoison. The group hacked RIM’s Inside Blackberry blog, and posted a message that warned the company not to cooperate with the police. Unfortunately, the threatening tone of the message detracted from any otherwise legitimate position. Indeed, there are strong reasons to consider protecting encrypted messages from police surveillance. First, as noted in an earlier post, uncensored social media often serves as a critical platform for marginalized groups to express their grievances vis-à-vis the state. Free expression on the Internet, for instance, has been deemed a fundamental human right by the United Nations.

As noted by Mike Butcher, one must not place blame on the technology itself for inciting the riot, but instead examine the underlying causes that contributed to the social unrest. Furthermore, Butcher points out the many ways BBM, Twitter and Facebook have helped authorities and citizens cope with the Riots. For instance, the Twitter account @riotcleanup has been quite successful in restoring order.