Twitter blocking: the technical and legal issues
(By Christopher Williams, The Telegraph, 12 August 2011)
It will probably take hundreds court hearings over several months before we have an clear view of the role played by social media and smartphones in this week’s riots. Nevertheless, David Cameron has already said the government already wants to explore new controls on these technologies.
“We are working with the 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,” he told MPs on Thursday.
The Prime Minister was talking about users of the two dominant social networks, Facebook and Twitter, and BlackBerry Messenger, RIM’s instant messenger service, which is particularly popular among urban youths.
Though very light on detail, the plans immediately raise myriad technical and legal issues.
Most obviously, how would authorities know which people are using smartphones and social media to encourage riots?
In the case of Facebook and Twitter, police intelligence gathering is already fairly advanced. These services are quasi-public communications media, with many messages viewable by anyone, and security firms lining up to provide authorities with software tools to make mass, real time monitoring easier.
But not all rioters are stupid enough to arrange their mayhem in public, and matters become trickier around private messages. The police have powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to seize stored messages, but the process involves a mountain of paperwork and would presumably be next to useless in an ongoing crisis.
The same applies to all BlackBerry Messenger conversations, none of which are public in the way that many Facebook and Twitter conversations are.
So to find out who is plotting violence, disorder and criminality in time to stop them using such services during a riot, authorities must consider interception, more commonly known as wiretapping.
The law around wiretapping is set by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). In order to intercept communications in transit - or in real time - police and the intelligence services require a warrant from the Home Secretary. Last year Theresa May and her Labour predecessor Alan Johnson approved 1,682 wiretapping orders.
The vast majority of these would have been issued with respect to an individual or premises, however, and so would be no use to authorities trying to identify who is planning riots. But under section 8 of RIPA, a special type of warrant can be issued where national security, serious crime or economic well-being are at stake.
These allow mass trawling of communications, and are used by the intelligence agency GCHQ to look out for terrorist plotting online and via phone networks by picking up keywords - say, “bomb” - from within the chatter. The agency achieves this with the help of the largest computing cluster in Europe and some of the best mathematics brains in the world.
Section 8 warrants are limited to communications sent to or received from outside the UK, but given Facebook and Twitter’s data centres are not in Britain, this would apparently not apply.
So in theory, at least, it’s feasible that authorities could monitor social networks for riot planning: the technology and the legal framework exist.
But such a system to target rioters in real time would require the construction of a vast edifice of bureaucracy, secret technology and gentlemen’s agreements, all on foundations of fear that this week’s shocking events might be repeated.
Mr Cameron’s high-profile backbencher Louise Mensch instead advocates simply pulling the plug on Facebook, Twitter and BBM when trouble strikes. Aside from the uncomfortable comparisons with Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt that this invites, it brings its own technical and legal challenges.
No sane internet company would completely shut down their service voluntarily, so the government would have to turn to the mobile networks and ISPs to block access. Some might toe the line, but some would not, and network-level blocks are easily circumvented.
The technical problems facing Mr Cameron’s initiative were summed up this week by John Bassett of RUSI, who had a long career at GCHQ and reached the upper echelons of Britain’s electronic spying apparatus.
“Any attempt to exert state control over social media looks likely to fail,” he said.
San Francisco protests go on without new wireless shutdowns
(The Associated Press, August 16, 2011)
SAN FRANCISCO -- Civil libertarian groups have backed away from threats to legally challenge the Bay Area Rapid Transit system's wireless service shutdown last week after the agency refused a repeat amid rush-hour protests that shuttered four San Francisco stations.
The American Civil Liberties Union met with BART's police chief late Monday even as demonstrators protested the agency's action to block wireless reception Thursday to disrupt a planned protest against police brutality. After the meeting, ACLU attorney Michael Risher said the organization had no plans to file a lawsuit, but he remained disappointed that he didn't extract a pledge from BART to refrain from similar tactics in the future. He said he planned to continue meeting with the agency.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, too, said it was unlikely to file a lawsuit over the disabling of wireless reception for three hours.
Still, the shutdown of wireless towers in stations near the protest Thursday raised questions about the role that social networks play in helping people, from Egypt to London, organize online. In the U.S., with its history of free speech, critics are saying BART's move was unconstitutional.
Cellphone service was operating Monday night as an estimated 50 protesters gathered on the Civic Center Station platform chanting "no justice, no peace" shortly after 5 p.m. Thirty minutes later, police in riot gear and wielding batons closed the station and cleared the platform after protesters briefly delayed an east-bound train from departing.
From Civic Center, the protesters were joined by more demonstrators and marched down San Francisco's Market Street and attempted to enter to more stations. Officials closed those stations as well.
"Once the platform becomes unsafe, we can't jeopardize the safety of patrons and employees," BART Deputy Police Chief Dan Hartwig said.
Hundreds of people stood on the sidewalks and streets outside stations in the city's Financial District on Monday evening. Many of the people appeared to be commuters.
Elijah Sparrow, a protester, called the demonstration "one of the defining battles of the 21st century over who is going to control communication."
BART officials have said their primary concern was to ensure that passengers are safe.
"It's wrong," the ACLU's Risher said. "There were better alternatives to ensure the public's safety."
Former BART director Michael Bernick applauded the move, saying it ensured a safe and uninterrupted commute Thursday night.
"Finally, BART said enough," said Bernick. "BART put its riders and commuters ahead of these protesters and the ACLU."
BART cut power to its wireless nodes Thursday night after learning demonstrators planned to use social media and text messaging to protest police brutality. The tactic appeared to work because no protest occurred.
BART's actions prompted a Federal Communications Commission investigation, and a hacking group organized an attack on one of the agency's websites on Sunday, posting personal information of more than 2,000 passengers online. The group Anonymous called for a disruption of BART's evening commute Monday.
"We are Anonymous, we are your citizens, we are the people, we do not tolerate oppression from any government agency," the hackers wrote on their own website. "BART has proved multiple times that they have no problem exploiting and abusing the people."
BART spokesman Jim Allison said BART has notified the FBI, and that no bank account or credit card information was listed.
BART officials, meanwhile, defended the shutdown of the cell service as a legal approach to ensure commute safety.
A protest last month on a San Francisco platform calling for the dismissal of the transit officers responsible for the July 3 shooting death of a man wielding a knife prompted the closing of one station and caused system-wide delays during rush hour.
Allison said the wireless outage was only for platforms and trains running under the city, places where protests are banned.
By Monday, a growing number of free speech advocates were calling on BART to renounce the tactic, with many calling the action an unconstitutional attempt to stifle lawful protest.
Regardless of its strict legality, Tien said the tactic was unsavory and compared it to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's shutting down access to the Internet in a failed attempt to stop civil unrest.
Bernick, the former BART director, said Northern California governments such as BART have been struggling for years with how to handle vocal political demonstrations that often escalate to violence.
BART and Oakland, in particular, have experienced several large-scale protests that turned into riots after a white transit officer shot the unarmed black commuter Oscar Grant on New Year's Day 2009.
BART officials said they are working on a plan to block any efforts by protesters to disrupt the service, which carries 190,000 passengers during the morning and evening commutes every day.
Police accessed BlackBerry messages to thwart planned riots
(Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, 16 August 2011)
Scotland Yard stopped attacks by rioters on sites across London hours before they had been due to take place after managing to "break into" encrypted social messaging sites, it has emerged.
Attacks on the Olympics site, stores in Oxford Circus and the two Westfield shopping centres, in east and west London, had been plotted using BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).
Detectives made the breakthrough shortly before the planned attacks after scouring the mobile phones of people who had been arrested during the riots.
It gave them access to messages, planning riots and looting, which were bouncing around the heavily encrypted BBM service.
But it also gave the Met other information, meaning they were able to use details gained from the seized phones to give officers "live time monitoring" of BBM and also Twitter.
By last Monday afternoon, they were able to monitor BlackBerry messaging and send extra officers to disrupt the planned attacks, which might have heightened the sense of danger felt by Londoners.
This Tuesday, police revealed they had considered switching off social messaging sites including BBM and Twitter.
Testifying before MPs on the home affairs committee, the acting Metropolitan police commissioner, Tim Godwin, said police discovered they did not have the legal powers to do so, adding: "We did consider seeking the legal authority to switch it off. The legality is questionable, very questionable."
He said that as well as social messaging sites being used to plan riots, they were a useful "intelligence asset" for police who were able to monitor them.
Last Monday, police chiefs sent officers to thwart the planned attacks on the Olympic site in Stratford, east London. Shops in the area also closed after "intelligence" obtained from social messaging sites of conspiracies to riot.
He said police were not "at this moment of time" asking the government for new powers to turn off social messaging sites during outbreaks of extreme disorder.
This week, the Guardian revealed that the government had drafted in the MI5 security service and the eavesdropping centre at GCHQ to join the hunt for those using social messaging to plot riots and work out how BlackBerry messaging could be "cracked" in future, and in real time if need be.
Godwin told MPs beginning their investigation into the riots that David Cameron had been wrong to tell the Commons last week that his officers had been too timid when faced with rioters and looters.
Confirming that he would apply to be the next commissioner of the Met, he said: "I do not believe that the men and the women of the Met were timid, which is an accusation that has been levelled at us."
Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said during his evidence that the police had no inkling the riots would erupt.
"What we saw, fundamentally different in my assessment, was almost nonexistent pre-intelligence. This was spontaneous rather than organised," he said.
The police chiefs again rejected the government's claims that it had quelled the rioting by ordering a huge surge of officers on to the street.
Godwin said he took the decision last Monday evening after it became clear officers were still being overrun as riots hit 22 of the 32 boroughs in London. The Met, Britain's biggest force, needed help from 30 other forces.
Orde told politicians they legally had no role in setting tactics. "If politicians want to make tactical decisions, they must take the responsibility and change the law to make that happen," he added.
Prime Minister Defends Jail Terms For Facebook Posts
(Sophy Ridge, Sky News, August 17, 2011)
David Cameron has defended the courts' decision to send a "tough message" over the riots, despite growing Liberal Democrat unease.
Jordan Blackshaw, 20, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, both received four-year jail terms for inciting disorder on Facebook - the toughest sentence yet since riots broke out in English cities.
The decision has divided politicians and threatened to expose coalition tensions over how best to deal with offenders.
Reacting to the decision, the Prime Minister said: "You weren't in court, I wasn't in court, it's up to the courts to make decisions about sentencing.
"They've decided to send a tough message and it's very good the courts feel able to do that," he added.
But Blackshaw's family said they were "shocked and upset" over the sentence.
His lawyer Chris Johnson added that there would be an appeal.
Most Conservative MPs have broadly welcomed the robust response despite growing feelings among many Liberal Democrats that the sentences are disproportionate and inconsistent.
Four-year jail terms are usually handed down for offences such as grievous bodily harm.
There are rumblings that this robust justice is the result of political pressure.
One Lib Dem source said: "We're uneasy about the sentencing and equally uneasy about politicians imposing on the criminal justice system."
Compare this to the message coming from the Tories - MP Douglas Carswell said the swift and harsh response suggested the courts "are getting their act together".
"Imagine if our criminal justice system worked like this all the time?"
Mr Cameron has been clear he wants those involved in the riots to go to jail and Home Secretary Theresa May suggested juvenile offenders be stripped of their anonymity.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles told Sky News the prison sentences for Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan were justified.
"The place where you live, the place where you shop, the streets where your children play, should feel safe," he said.
"What these two did and what the rioters did was to make people frightened in their homes.
"That kind of public breakdown which did appear for a few moments in Britain - that this was a crime without consequence - I think it is necessary to have such a harsh sentence."
But Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes told Sky News he hoped courts would show "relative leniency" when it comes to first-time offenders.
Lib Dem MP Tom Brake has said the response should be about "restorative justice".
He told Sky News the Facebook sentences "may be appropriate" but several people have gone to jail for "petty crimes" such as stealing bottled water.
"The Ministry of Justice's own evidence is short-term sentences are very ineffective at reducing reoffending" compared to community sentences," he added.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has put far more emphasis on community service and the need for offenders to make amends by doing good works in the areas they damaged and looted than Mr Cameron.
Labour MP Paul Flynn said the sentences were a sign of "wild panic" rather than leadership and feared guidelines had been "thrown away".
"How can this make sense? How does it compare with other crimes? What will it do to prison numbers?" he asked on his blog.
"This is not Government. It's a series of wild panic measures seeking to claw back popularity."
Nearly two-thirds of riot-related offenders have so far been remanded in custody after appearing in court - the rate last year was closer to 10%.
Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan both received jail sentences for writing Facebook posts in areas that did not subsequently see riots.
Cheshire Police discovered a Facebook event entitled "Smash Down Northwich Town" created by Blackshaw, who is from Marston near Northwich.
It clearly stated who it was created by and gave a time and place for the "Mob Hill Massive Northwich Lootin'" to meet "behind maccies" - believed to mean the local McDonalds.
Blackshaw posted the first comment, saying: "WE'LL NEED TO GET ON THIS KICKIN OFF ALL OVER."
Sutcliffe-Keenan, from Warrington, also set up a Facebook page encouraging disorder called "Warrington Riots" with a date and time.
This spate of jail sentences comes just months after Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke set out plans to reduce the prison population.
Any review of this seems highly unlikely in light of the financial constraints the Ministry of Justice budget is under as the Treasury has consistently said the spending settlements ministers received cannot be rolled back.
Politicians have made their views clear because of the specific circumstances of the riots and the political pressure to be seen to punish those involved.
But that is also exactly what has prompted criticism from others, who say one of the fundamental principles of the legal system is that it must be consistent.
Post-riot, UK government halts talk of social media shutdown
(By Jeremy Kirk, IDG News Service, August 25, 2011)
The U.K. government met on Thursday with technology companies for a post-mortem on the violent riots earlier this month, but made clear from the onset that it was no longer considering shutting down services in times of crisis.
Home Secretary Theresa May met with representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Research In Motion, three companies whose services were used by participants in the violent rioting across several U.K. cities.
After the riots, Prime Minister David Cameron said the U.K. would look at "whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence." The suggestion that the U.K. could censor social networking services brought wide criticism.
The Home Office said in a statement that the discussions revolved around improving the "technological and related legal capabilities of the police" when dealing with services that are being used for criminal behavior. The Home Office did not mention if it discussed shutting down services with the companies.
But a statement from Facebook said that from the start of the meeting May "set the tone clearly that we were not there to discuss restricting Internet services."
"We welcome the fact that this was a dialogue about working together to keep people safe rather than about imposing new restrictions on Internet services," the statement read.
Facebook did acknowledge that "sometimes we have to be more vigilant or react faster when there are exceptional circumstances," such as the recent shootings in Norway or the riots in the U.K.
"When we are dealing with situations that are heightened or sensitive such as the U.K. riots, then content relating to this specific issue is prioritized," Facebook said. "As a result, the team works around the clock to ensure that take-down times for such content is decreased and content that straddles the line of acceptability is closely monitored."
Facebook said that it processes reports about content that is against its rules to its User Operations teams, which work 24 hours a day around the world. The company has a law enforcement team dedicated to helping U.K. police improve their skills in using the service to handle serious crime.
On Aug. 16, a British court sentenced two men to four years each in prison for using Facebook to try to organize two riots, one of the sternest punishments meted out so far for misbehavior and one that has been criticized as being too harsh. Neither riot actually took place.
Facebook said in its statement that the service was also used for positive actions, such as organizing groups to clean up debris from the streets following the disturbances.
RIM, whose BlackBerry devices are popular with U.K. youth, called the discussions "positive and productive." Young people are thought to buy BlackBerry devices for Messenger, an instant messaging application that allows people to broadcast messages to many users. It has been blamed for enabling youths to quickly mass in key neighborhoods in London and other U.K. cities hit with looting and arson.
Twitter was more oblique and did not mention Thursday's meeting with the government. "We've heard from many that Twitter is an effective way to distribute crucial updates and dispel rumors in times of crisis or emergency," the company said.
UK Government Might Make People Use Their Real Names On Twitter
(Adam Taylor, Business Insider, August 26, 2011)
The UK government is considering making Twitter users use their real names, reports the New York Times.
The idea was one of many put forward in recent talks between the UK government and various social networks on how to control criminal behavior on social media.
The talks came after social media and networks such as RIM's Blackberry Messenger were said to have played a major role in this months huge riots in the UK.
Prime Minister David Cameron later told the House of Commons that "when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them". An opinion poll by Opinium Research found 38% of people supported shutting social media down during civil unrest.
“You do not want to be on a list with the countries that have cracked down on social media during the Arab Spring,” Jo Glanville, the editor of Index on Censorship, told the New York Times.
In Unsettled Times, Media Can Be a Call to Action, or a Distraction
(By NOAM COHEN, The New York Times, August 28, 2011)
THE mass media, including interactive social-networking tools, make you passive, can sap your initiative, leave you content to watch the spectacle of life from your couch or smartphone.
Apparently even during a revolution.
That is the provocative thesis of a new paper by Navid Hassanpour, a political philosophy graduate student at Yale, titled “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest.”
Using complex calculations and vectors representing decision-making by potential protesters, Mr. Hassanpour, who already has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford, studied the recent uprising in Egypt.
His question was, how smart was the decision by the government of President Hosni Mubarak to completely shut down the Internet and cellphone service on Jan. 28, in the middle of the crucial protests in Tahrir Square?
His conclusion was, not so smart, but not for the reasons you might think. “Full connectivity in a social network sometimes can hinder collective action,” he writes.
To put it another way, all the Twitter posting, texting and Facebook wall-posting is great for organizing and spreading a message of protest, but it can also spread a message of caution, delay, confusion or, I don’t have time for all this politics, did you see what Lady Gaga is wearing?
It is a conclusion that counters the widely held belief that the social media helped spur the protests. Mr. Hassanpour used press accounts of outbreaks of unrest in Egypt to show that after Jan. 28, the protests became more spread around Cairo and the country. There were not necessarily more protesters, but the movement spread to more parts of the population.
He called this a “localization process.” “You can say it would be hard to measure that,” he added, talking about his research, “but you can test it, what happens when a disruption goes into effect.”
“The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways,” he writes. “It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.”
In an interview, he described “the strange darkness” that takes place in a society deprived of media outlets. “We become more normal when we actually know what is going on — we are more unpredictable when we don’t — on a mass scale that has interesting implications,” he said.
Mr. Mubarak’s government collapsed and the former president, at age 83, now finds himself being wheeled into a Cairo court on a hospital bed to face charges of corruption and complicity in the killing of protesters.
Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer of Renesys, a company that assesses the way the Internet is operating across the world, believes that another besieged leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, may have taken note of the Egyptian experience.
In a blog post on the company’s Web site, “What Libya Learned From Egypt,” Mr. Cowie writes that in March, Libya toyed with the idea of pulling the switch on its Internet service.
Libya’s leaders “faced this same decision in the run-up to civil war,” he wrote, “and each time, perhaps learning from the Egyptian example, they backed down from implementing a multiday all-routes blackout.”
Sophisticated governments will realize that “shutting down radicalizes things,” he said in a phone interview. What is more useful to governments, he said, was “bandwidth throttling,” recognizing that “Internet is something you can meter out.” This “metering out” is meant to make the experience less reliable and responsive, he said, so that video streaming is hesitant and Web pages are slow to load.
Iran, Mr. Cowie said, was one of a number of countries that have realized that “you don’t turn off the Internet anywhere — you make it less useful,” controlling which neighborhoods get it, for example.
Mr. Hassanpour, who was born and raised in Iran, agreed: “Iran does it in a localized way.”
So what is going on here? Certainly, blocking the ability of protesters to use the Internet and cellphones to plot has appeal for all kinds of leaders. In response to recent riots, the British government likewise was trying to figure out a way to gain access to social-networking services like Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry’s messenger system, to stop potential rioters from organizing.
Speaking to Parliament this month, Prime Minister David Cameron made the case for a clampdown: “We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
That proposal, which the British government has backed away from recently, prompted defenders of social networking to point out that not all the organizing was for ill. Others point out that social networking can allow the authorities to follow what is being planned, and try to respond.
Mr. Hassanpour said he was inspired to ask his questions by the insight of a 2009 paper by Holger Lutz Kern of Yale and Jens Hainmueller of M.I.T. that looked at Germany during the cold war and tried to determine the effect of exposure to West German media on East Germans who were able to see West German TV.
The authors took some of the earnest interpretations of the supposed influence of Western media — like, the media gave “people behind the Iron Curtain hope and the assurance that the Free World hadn’t forgotten them,” and allowed Germans to “compare Communist propaganda with credible information from abroad” — and exposed these ideas to basic scrutiny.
Their conclusion, based on formerly classified East German surveys of young people and visa applications to leave East Germany, adjusted for other factors, was that “exposure to West German television increased support for the East German regime.”
“It offered them a vicarious escape from the scarcities, the queues and the ideological indoctrination, making life under communism more bearable and the East German regime more tolerable,” they wrote in their paper, “Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Media Can Stabilize Authoritarian Regimes.”
“We do not necessarily argue that West German television’s political content did not undermine public support for the East German regime at all,” they wrote. “However, the evidence shows that the net effect of West German television exposure was an increase in regime support.”
This conclusion can come as a relief to those who see technology given more importance than ideas, organizations and on-the-ground conditions.
Todd Wolfson, an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers and a community organizer in Philadelphia, said that there was, indeed, “an accelerant role for social media,” but that it “cannot and does not create that kind of mass motion.”
He cited the writer Frantz Fanon, who discussed the role of radio in the Algerian revolt against the French in the 1950s. When the French tried to block their transmissions, Fanon wrote in his 1959 book, “A Dying Colonialism,” the rebels had even more power, because the listeners were no longer passive. Fanon’s description recalls “the strange darkness” Mr. Hassanpour mentioned:
“For an hour the room would be filled with the piercing, excruciating din of the jamming. Behind each modulation, each active crackling, the Algerian would imagine not only words, but concrete battles.”
Its “phantom-like character,” Fanon concluded paradoxically, “gave to the combat its maximum of reality.”
Police scramble to fight flash-mob mayhem
(By Ashley Fantz, CNN, August 18, 2011)
This week in Germantown, Maryland, it took less than a minute for a flash mob of teenagers to descend on a 7-Eleven, ransack shelves and make off with hundreds of dollars worth of stuff.
It's going to take much longer for police in Montgomery County to figure out how to prevent it from happening again.
"We had always thought flash mobs happen in big cities. We are unprepared. We don't have anyone who has social-media expertise," said county police spokeswoman Janelle Smith. "Even if we did, our budget looks like every other law enforcement agency in the country. It's not pretty."
Police in Maryland are not alone in their scramble to find creative, affordable and efficient ways to fight mayhem from flash mobs -- groups of people who gather in one location quickly after being summoned online. Law enforcement in big cities and small towns are all scrambling to, as Smith put it, "catch up with teenagers" when it comes to monitoring crime planning on the Web.
This summer, spontaneous incidents of group violence -- dubbed "flash robs" -- have happened in Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Washington, among other cities. Most episodes involved groups of young people looting stores or assaulting pedestrians and then running off.
Authorities said they believe at least some of these incidents were triggered by calls on social-networking sites to meet up and wreak havoc, although they cannot say for certain.
By far, the worst flash-mob violence has occurred over the past few weeks in the United Kingdom. Angry hordes terrorized neighborhoods in London, Birmingham and elsewhere. Buildings were torched. People were beaten. Homes were vandalized and looted.
British authorities said the rioters communicated their intent for destruction through BlackBerry Messenger, a private mobile-messaging system that's popular with young people in the UK. One reported text read: "If you're down for making money, we're about to go hard in east London."
At least one expert believes most members of law enforcement are far behind the times when it comes to battling flash mobs.
"Part of the challenge is generational. Older officers in management positions -- the ones making decisions -- are often not as savvy as younger officers with social media," said Nancy Kolb, who oversees the International Association of Chiefs of Police's Center for Social Media. "It's important to empower your younger officers, or those with expertise, to teach everyone else."
Increased calls for social media, BBM regulation
(Michelle Atagana, Managing Editor, Memeburn.com, September 6, 2011)
Formal content regulation on social networks and messenger services like BlackBerry’s BBM is currently a topic of heated discussion around the world. Governments in disparate countries from the UK, Saudi Arabia, India, UAE to South Africa have been making noises about regulating the free-for-all on popular social media sites and tools.
On Monday South African deputy communications minister, Obed Bapela, called for new regulations that will allow police authority access messages sent via BlackBerry’s encrypted messenger service (BBM), reports Business Day.
Bapela said the government was now considering regulations following calls from the UK and Saudi Arabia for decryption of BlackBerry messages.
Speaking at Telkom’s Southern African Telecommunication Network and Application conference Bapela explained that policy would include provisions for government to be able to decrypt BBM communications “if crimes are committed using the BlackBerry service”.
The report further states that Bapela’s proposed legislation would be used only once a crime had been committed — and the permission of a magistrate would be required before accessing the data. However, Bapela states that South Africa has a “high threat of crime” which requires high priority.
Experts argue that South Africa already has legislation allowing this — the Regulation of Interception of Communication Act (RICA). Earlier this year millions of South Africans registered their SIM cards fearing disconnection. RICA allows government authorities to track a number that has been registered in the event that it is used to commit a crime.
The London riots led the UK government to enter into discussions about limiting access to social networks and messenger services such Research In Motion’s BlackBerry Messenger service during times of unrest.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron stated that the “free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill… [perhaps] it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
Regulations like these raise concerns about the erosion of one of the core tenants of modern democracies: Freedom of expression.
In the UK, RIM issued a statement saying, “We welcome the opportunity for consultation together with other companies in the technology and telecommunication industry. RIM continues to comply with both UK privacy laws as well as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which are of course the same laws that apply to other technology and telecommunications companies in the UK”.
Last year Saudi Arabia banned messenger functions on all BlackBerry devices claiming they posed security concerns. The United Arab Emirates also called for a ban of some BlackBerry services. The security concerns raised by both gulf states was because Blackberry handsets automatically send the encrypted data to computer servers outside the two countries, reports the BBC.
“It’s a huge mistake to go the Saudi Arabia route. It is hardly democratic. In the UK politicians don’t understand technology and the evidence presented against BBM was purely circumstantial. Just because 37 percent of the youth use BBM doesn’t justify or prove that it was used to incite violence. It is nonsensical to use these countries as examples and it completely trivialises crime,” says Arthur Goldstuck head of World Wide Worx research organisation, when asked to comment about the proposed South African legislation.
Goldstuck further states that, “the motive in Saudi Arabia was political and a freedom of speech issue. BBM is fully convered by RICA, and telecommunications operators are required to grant access to encrypted data following a court order when a crime is committed. This what the minster intends, however, he undermines this intention by targeting BBM specifically. Crimes are more likely to be committed using various communication services such as emails, SMSes and voice calls.”
RIM also last year allowed Indian security authorities to monitor Blackberry services after the authorities also expressed security concerns.
“We won’t compromise on the security architecture of our corporate e-mails,” said RIM’s India spokesman, Satchit Gayakwad.
“We respect the requirements of regulatory bodies in terms of security, but we also look at the customer’s need for privacy.”
Following the posting of a staged Facebook image of a white “hunter” kneeling over the apparently lifeless body of a black child, calls for regulation have become louder in South African government circles.
Questions arise from use of social media mining technology
(The Oklahoma Daily Editorial Board, September 7, 2011)
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense — is looking for new technology to aggregate information from social media to help predict violent uprisings, terrorist attacks, resource shortages, humanitarian crises and other instability. This new technology could track “linguistic cues, patterns of information flow, topic trend analysis, sentiment detection and opinion mining” to predict societal changes, The New York Times reported.
The agency put out a call to developers July 14 as part of its Social Media in Strategic Communication program, which will use social media tactics to track trends, watch the development of propaganda campaigns and respond with counter-spin, according to the announcement.
As the agency has presented the project, the propaganda programs will be focused on “the environment in which [the Armed Forces] operates,” which seems to preclude domestic activity. But this leaves us with serious questions as to how this program, and these technological developments, will be practically applied here and abroad.
How accurate is this technique? It’s exciting, yes, but if we put too much faith in an imprecise technology — or, more accurately, in the inherently fallible human interpretation of raw data — then we could end up overreacting to potential instability. Predictive techniques of any kind can only go so far, and it must be challenging to delineate potentially violent unrest from general dissent. Anyone who uses social media has seen it used to act out in the most vicious of ways, but that usually doesn’t translate to real-world action. We don’t want to see resources wasted on false alarms.
Beyond the practical question lay the ethical concerns. Yes, information in social media is public. But we worry that this technology would make it all too easy to take one little step across boundaries and start restricting rights. What could the government do with the ability to predict the movements of oppressed minority groups or the rise of protest movements, especially when policy leaders are the ones who get to decide which groups and movements are potentially dangerous? We’ve already learned of widespread racial profiling in the New York Police Department; this technology would make that kind of thinking that much easier. That’s a lot of power in few hands. And if the program turns its “counter-messaging” program on the U.S., it becomes not only incredibly unethical, but also illegal.
Even if the program is only applied abroad, this activity still brings up serious ethical questions. What right do we have to create these counter-spin campaigns in other countries or act to potentially quell civil unrest? Those misinformation campaigns that directly affect the safety of our troops or our success in combat areas are one thing — everything else is a gray area. We can see the benefit of fighting those voices that strive to incite radicalism. We just don’t want to see the U.S. overstepping its bounds to quell an uprising that might not have turned violent.
It all feels a bit like the movie “Minority Report” to us. But maybe our fear is just a gut reaction. This technology is fascinating, and there are merits to the futurism approach. It may help the U.S. to be more proactive in its threat response — more predictive than reactive. But we must proceed with caution, or our zest for a new approach will overshadow our reason, and we may end up trusting too much in an imprecise technique.