RIM, BlackBerry app caught in middle of London riots

Access to handheld devices and the Internet may have helped fuel the riots that have rocked England the past several days, but that same technology could help police find and arrest some of the rioters. And Research In Motion appears to be caught in the middle of it.

Riots began Aug. 6 in reaction to the Aug. 4 police shooting of a 29-year-old man, Mark Duggan, in the Tottenham neighborhood of London, the BBC reports. A protest outside the Tottenham police station turned violent, and over the next several days violence spread to more than 20 neighborhoods in the city and prompted riots in other cities as far north as Liverpool.

BlackBerry Messenger, RIM’s instant messaging app, apparently has been the preferred means of communication among those coordinating the riots (although social media platforms such as Twitter also were in play), and now could be used to help police track them down, the Register reports.

BlackBerry UK on its Twitter account expressed sympathy for people affected by the riots and said it will assist police “in any way we can,” which could mean that the company will turn over logs of BBM messages. Although it wasn’t certain whether RIM keeps extensive logs of instant messages, BBM does travel through its servers.

A London lawyer told the Register that it is likely that police are already examining messages, noting that Britain’s Data Protection Act gives police a lot of flexibility in looking for identifying evidence. Access to the logs could also conceivably reveal rioters’ locations via Global Positioning System signals.

RIM could face retaliation for helping the police. At least one hacker group has come down on the side of the rioters, breaking into and defacing RIM’s corporate blog. The hackers, Team Poison or TeaMp0isoN, claimed to have stolen sensitive corporate directories with personal information on RIM employees and threatened to release them if RIM cooperates with the police.

Meanwhile, a new Google Group called London Riots Facial Recognition (membership required) has formed to use facial recognition technology to help identify looters in the riots, TechCrunch reported.

The group has discussed using tools such as Face.API to build apps that could help identify people from photos posted on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and elsewhere.

TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez noted that the group has expressed caution about ethics and staying within the law, but she also ascribed a “creepy” factor to the project, since it involves people working outside law enforcement on a project that could bring suspicion even on innocent bystanders.

Scotland Yard also has been releasing closed-circuit TV images of rioters in hopes of identifying suspects, the BBC reported.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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