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Why Rioters Won’t Be Protected by BlackBerry Messaging System

Police may already be sifting through communications for incriminating messages.
August 10, 2011

Those involved in the recent rioting and looting in Britain are unlikely to have their identities protected by the BlackBerry Messenger service (BBM), contrary to reports that such data is “untraceable.”

While BBM does provide greater privacy than public social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook, British police are still likely to be able to use it to track down those coordinating and participating in the disorder that has taken place over the past four nights. BlackBerry’s Canadian manufacturer, Research In Motion (RIM), has refused to answer questions, perhaps because releasing certain information about the degree to which it is cooperating with the authorities could be unlawful.

BlackBerry users can only exchange messages via BBM if they have exchanged their unique PIN codes, which they can do quickly via e-mail, social network, or scanning a QR barcode using a handset’s camera. Using BBM is more like sending a text to multiple contacts than posting on a social network.

The network provider’s server ceases to be involved once it determines for a user which contacts are logged on and has informed those contacts that the user is available. After that, communications occur directly between users’ client software, although BBM messages are routed via RIM’s servers.

Media reports have suggested that part of the rioters’ and looters’ attraction to BBM is its relative security compared to social media or text messaging. However, the widespread use of BBM by teenagers and young adults, including those involved in the violence, is more likely explained by its speed, convenience, and low cost. These attributes have made BlackBerry handsets popular among the age group of those involved in the trouble, accounting for 37 percent of the British teenage market, according to a report released by Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority, last week.

BlackBerry has resisted calls to suspend BBM, and some have speculated that the service provides users with a level of technical protection. “It’s like text messaging with steroids,” said Mike Butcher, a technology journalist and adviser to London mayor Boris Johnson, on the BBC’s radio show Today. “You can send messages to hundreds of people, and once it’s gone from your phone, it cannot be traced back to you.”

In a statement, BlackBerry said it would cooperate with the authorities, but the company has refused to answer specific questions since then.

“We feel for those impacted by recent days’ riots in London,” said Patrick Spence, the company’s managing director of global sales and regional marketing. “We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can. As in all markets around the world where BlackBerry is available, we cooperate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement, and regulatory officials.”

Police can require RIM to hand over data under section 49 of the U.K.’s Regulatory of Investigatory Powers Act, allowing them to analyze the flow of messages and track down the specific BlackBerry handsets from which the inflammatory messages originated. Since individuals need a service plan to use BBM, the police can then trace users’ identities via their network provider.

Cell-phone operators in Britain keep location data from handsets, as well as call and text records, for at least a year so that they can comply with RIPA requests from law enforcement agencies. Another less-well-known provision, section 54 of the same act, prevents those responding to RIPA requests from revealing that they are doing so.

So BlackBerry’s refusal to answer specific questions, which has led to reports suggesting that messages cannot be traced and that techno-savvy teenagers had outwitted the police by using BBM, is more likely evidence that the company is cooperating.

While RIM has not disclosed whether its U.K. servers archive messages, most industry experts and lawyers believe that they do this to comply with RIPA, and that the police are already sifting through the data to help them identify and track down those involved in the recent violence.

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