The maker of the BlackBerry, Research in Motion (RIM), said on Monday that it would cooperate with a police investigation into claims that its popular BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service played a key role in organizing the recent London riots.
Scotland Yard vowed to track down and arrest protesters who posted “really inflammatory, inaccurate” messages on the service, and on social networking Web sites Twitter and Facebook.
Patrick Spence, managing director of regional marketing at Research In Motion, confirmed that the BlackBerry manufacturer had contacted police to assist with the investigation.
However, the statement prompted fears from some users that their private messages could be handed over to police.
“We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can,” Spence said.
He added that RIM complies with UK legislation on the interception of communication and cooperates fully with the British Home Office. RIM refused to comment further or answer a series of questions on the statement.
BBM appears to be the favored method of planning the unrest that has swept across north London since Saturday evening. Unlike text messaging or Twitter, BBM is a free, private social network where almost all messages are encrypted when they leave the sender’s mobile phone — meaning that many messages are untraceable by the authorities.
RIM can be legally ordered to hand over details to police of users suspected of unlawful activity. However, the Canadian company would be likely to resist those demands and the content of users’ inflammatory messages would be encrypted. The manufacturer has previously insisted that even it cannot unscramble users’ messages when sent on the devices.
Although Twitter and Facebook have played a key role in past unrest in the capital, the Tottenham riots are thought to be the first in the UK so heavily orchestrated using BBM.
The “broadcasts” — which are sent instantly from one-to-many BBM users — have been reposted and amplified on Twitter and Facebook. Evidence of rioters planning where to hit next spread quickly on the networks as police struggled to keep up.
One BBM broadcast posted last night appeared to urge protesters to go looting in Stratford, east London.
“If you’re down for making money, we’re about to go hard in east london tonight, yes tonight!!” it said. “I don’t care what ends you’re from, we’re personally inviting you to come and get it in. Police have taken the piss for too long and to be honest I don’t know why its taken so long for us make this happen. We need a minimum of 200 hungry people. We’re not broke, but who says no to free stuff. Doesn’t matter if the police arrive, cos we’ll just chase dem out because, as you’ve seen on the news, they are NOT ON DIS TING. Everyone meet at 7 at stratford park and let’s get rich.”
Another broadcast implored protesters to “unite and hit the streets” in Kilburn, northwest London.
On Sunday BBM users were urged to head to Oxford Circus for “pure terror and havoc & free stuff.”
Steve Kavanagh, the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said that “really inflammatory, inaccurate” messages on Twitter were mainly to blame for the disorder.
“Social media and other methods have been used to organize these levels of greed and criminality,” he said at a press conference yesterday.