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Facebook and Blackberry used against rioters?

Determined to punish UK looters, the British government may try to impose telecommunication policies which will greatly favor the authorities. Is Cameron stepping in line with dictators in the Middle East?

by Olivier Tesquet On August 19, 2011

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À propos de l'auteur

Jeune journaliste issu de l'école géopolitique, j'ai quelques marottes, comme les libertés numériques, le LOL et les enquêtes à tiroirs. Embarqué dans la Soucoupe depuis août 2010, je collabore également à Slate.fr, Snatch et Technikart. Disclaimer: je porte des chemises à carreaux.


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On Tuesday, August 16, two young Englishmen (age 20 and 22) were sentenced to four years in prison. Their crime was “organizing” riots on Facebook by creating event pages – as others did before them in Tunisia and Libya (to the delight of British leaders). Trapped by local police who had increased their presence on the site, the two “guilty” young men (they were sentenced on the basis of their intentions) can count on the support of several NGOs and lawyers, who report “disproportionate sanctions.”  A few months ago in France, the magistrates tried to determine the criminal liability of these Facebook meet-ups. Yet the UK has already ruled. Pending legislation adjustments, the courts have already taken action – and the culprits are guilty as charged. They are BlackBerry, Twitter, Facebook and the Internet.

I have a lot of friends who already have Blackberrys, actually. In BBM (Blackberry Messenger), you have your own friends, that are already in your contacts. In a few seconds, you can talk with anyone with a Blackberry, it’s pretty cool.

In the latest French advertising campaign to sell its newest phone, BlackBerry used basketball players, designers and DJs as spokesmen, with the slogan: “Love what you do.” But the riots in Tottenham, Hackney and Manchester are spokesmen of their own. According to the London police, the instant messaging service was used by rioters to loot several shops in the capital. The problem? On BBM, exchanges are encrypted.

Cameron wants to cut social networks

Immediately, the Metropolitan Police ordered RIM to cooperate by providing access to servers. The company complies without a complaint. Yet the authorities aren’t going to stop when they’re on this path. On August 15, the Guardian revealed that MI5 spies, the English equivalent of the DCRI, were requisitioned to assist in the phone tapping between breakers. The GHCQ(Government Communications Headquarters, the authority charged with electronic intelligence) has also been sought out to do the same thing. Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron took advantage of a special session in Parliament to sling mud at the Internet – the problems in the UK are the Internet’s fault:

When the people use social networks to violent ends, we must stop them. We are working with the police, reconnaissance services and private enterprises to know if it would be just to prevent people from communicating using these sites services when we know that they are planning disorderly, violent, and criminal acts.

This sort of tactic is well known: Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran have already used it. France, however, prefers variants. In 2005, while fires burned in and around Paris, arsonists displayed their exploits on Skyblog. The Directorate for Territorial Surveillance(DST now DCRI) was instructed to monitor texts sent by suburban young people. Our colleague Jean-Marc Manach, never running out of jokes, had developed ”an automatic generator of fake riot calls ” nicknamed Racaillotrou.

By keeping an eye on Twitter and Facebook, the tenant at 10 Downing Street is probably hoping to develop a form of precognition that the recent Norwegian news has already disproved. Above all, the Prime Minister is forgetting that such a coercive measure does not prevent the riots, much less contain them. Worse, it can have the opposite result and cause them, as seen in San Francisco just a few days ago (After the death of an unarmed person in a subway station, clashes erupted, and the agency that administers railway lines in the Bay Area jammed telecommunications stations. Instead of preventing further conflict, the situation became worse).

The “Big Brother law” making a comeback?

Reporters Without Borders is already concerned about BlackBerry’s operations in the future, pointing out the danger of ”making personal data available.” Cameron’s project is expected to generate a second wave of discontent. The French magazine Les In Rocks interviewed Onwurah Chi, Labour Party deputy and shadow minister of innovation. She is already concerned about government announcements. ”I worked at Ofcom for six years as communications regulator. In both legal and technical terms, a lot of opportunities for intervention exist. The question is: is it reasonable and appropriate to do so?” She asks, regretting that Cameron “[doesn't understand] new technology.”

Christopher Parsons, researcher in Political Science at the University of Victoria and Blackberry architecture connoisseur, expresses his doubts on the effectiveness of such means employed by the United Kingdom:

Under British law, RIM could be forced to deliver certain messages (if they are stored on UK servers) or encryption keys. Such agreements already exist in India, and I wonder about the precise roles of MI5 and GHCQ. Like NSA in the US, the capacities of the latter are unknown, but they have really developed a network of telecommunications. The Guardian asserts that they have far exceeded the scope of their powers (We have recently learned that the GHCQ played a central role in the development of digital offense weapons requested by the British General Staff). I fear that the Parliament is taking advantage of recent events to relaunch the debate on the Interception Modernisation Programme, a bill that would enable extensive surveillance of the kingdom’s networks.

Shooed out the door in 2008, this “Big Brother database” could still fly back in through the window. This is exactly what Heather Brooke (a journalist and activist who revealed the scandal of British MPs expenses and Assange’s worst enemy) dreads. ”Given the power that social networks provide, the political reflex is to want to close them,” Brooke told the Huffington Post. In her opinion, political and financial issues surrounding personal data - and by extension their control - will cause the scandals of the decade. Rupert Murdoch and his illegal wiretapping? Only a small fish in a big sea.

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Photo credits: Photoshoplooter, Flickr CC Marco Hornung, conservative party

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