London has seen some of the worst acts of violence and civil disobedience for decades over the past four days, with the disruption spreading to other parts of England last night – most notably Manchester and Birmingham. We previously covered how the rioters were using Blackberry BBM to communicate with each other and find the next place that was unprotected and easy to loot, but that is far from the whole story of social media’s involvement over the last few days.
Yes the rioters were using BBM due to their belief that it is secure, but it is only secure when compared to the public forums of Twitter – not secure in the impenetrable sense, and the actual content of the messages is not the most useful part in the police investigation after the fact in any case. As pointed out on Zdnet a couple of days ago, making use of the Regulatory of Investigatory Powers section 49, the police can compel RIM to hand over the message data to police, allowing them to see how, when, and by whom the data spread – a way to find the BBM PIN of those inciting the riots. For their part, RIM have offered to help the police in any way they can ignoring threats of repurcusions.
It is quite likely that the police and security services already know the content of these messages in any case, as to gain access to that – all that needs to be done is spoof the BBM PIN as whilst RIM encrypts each message by Triple DES, each and every Blackberry offer the same encryption key and so can decode every message. For a security service with the resources available to those in the UK, such a hack would be relatively trivial. Nonetheless it has remained the communication tool of preference for the rioters.
In contrast to the violence organised via BBM, Twitter was used by the general public to both report the incidents as they happened long before any news team started covering events (1 in every 170 UK internet visits on August 8 was to twitter.com according to Hitwise) – and then the service was used to organise the #RiotCleanUp operations. Thousands of members of the public took the time out of their days to show solidarity in the face of hardship, with riot cleanup crews assembling in the early mornings in the worst affected areas all across London and other cities, with certain people such as @riotcleanup (Sam Duckworth from band Get Cape Wear Cape Fly), and @artistsmakers (Dan Thompson) taking the lead, with others including myself (@thebluewalrus) keeping people informed and mobilizing the effort. The site of hundreds of people (variously calling themselves #riotwombles or the #broomarmy) turning up at Peckham, Camden, Clapham Junction, and today Manchester amongst other areas, with smiles and brooms ready to clear up the damage, ready to stand strong and rebuild our communities, made the positivity outweigh the fear and disappointment from the nights before.
Mashable have done a good Storify of the RiotCleanup as it happened: