Throughout the disturbances in London and across the UK that have, over the past week, inflicted hundreds of millions of pounds of damage, people - particularly foolhardy journalists and politicians - have been quick to try to find a source for blame, charging at their usual suspects of Twitter and Facebook. This time, however, the public networks have been the target of people looking to clean up after the damage, rather than those searching for others to cause it. Instead the veil of guilt has fallen on Blackberry's private messaging protocol, Blackberry Messenger (commonly known as BBM), known to be increasingly popular amongst the youth of today.
BBM has been called out on allowing 'protesting' rioters the opportunity to communicate and broadcast opinion and information instantly and anonymously across their networks. BBM is a private and encrypted method of communication, requiring intervention by Blackberry to intercept the messages and decode them.
But why do we have to blame any network at all? Calls of the last few days have varied, with the public wanting water-cannons, rubber bullets, even bringing in the Army; but among the most popular have been calls for Blackberry's BBM service to be entirely shut down.
Research in Motion (RIM), the makers of the Blackberry series of smartphones, have been in trouble in previous years with the Saudi government, who refused to allow their phones to be sold with the business-level secure messaging. The two solutions given to Blackberry were servers located inside the country, or a patch applied for the government to intercept and decrypt communications in cases of "national security".
There seems to be a fear in this country of the unseen. In an increasingly public world where Twitter updates are retweeted to thousands and Facebook statuses copied across the internet, the issue of privacy has become one of 'if you have nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear'. Far from me to get political about people's' right to privacy, but there's greater reasoning besides the liberal agenda for keeping the network online.
BBM is actually assisting police more than a lot of people think. In similarity to how messages posted publicly on Twitter and Facebook spread virally not only to potential criminals, but also to the law-abiding public; BBM correspondence via the 'broadcast' system was leaking to the press heavily from users receiving them from their friends, anything that leaks to the press in this regard can quite as easily also be forwarded to the police. At lot of the messages were posted online: the riot in Enfield, spread virally via BBM, was quickly posted to Twitter to be retweeted to thousands by 1pm, with the gathering scheduled for three hours later.
The issue we're seeing from politicians is a complete misunderstanding of the issue: they completely neglect to see the benefits we're seeing from a still-new method of communication, and at the same time, completely forgetting other methods exist.
So the scenario they want, where social media is 'shut down' for criminals, would actually work out worse for the police and public. Without these 'new-fangled' easily leak-able, forward-able, retweet-able methods of communication, what would people resort to? SMS, telephone calls, the old greats used by drug-dealers and head-honchos for years, and how would you be finding the originator, the context, the volume of people who have seen and may respond to that message? You can't.
Follow Matthew TK Taylor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MattieTK