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Blackberry: The London Rioters' Tool Of Choice

To own a Blackberry was once like being publicly branded by your corporate IT department. But after riots have engulfed parts of London in recent days, the Blackberry is being seen not as a tool of subservience to the man, but of subversion.

Twitter has received some press attention in the U.K. for being partly responsible for the riots. But if you trawl through the hashtags, #Tottenham, #Enfield, #Tottenhamriots, on a handy tool like Trendistic, the vast majority of tweets have nothing to do with organizing the riots.

Instead the tweets are mostly condemnation, calls for calm, retweets of rumors (gasoline bombs being thrown onto cars on the highway), and a good deal of humor (fear and then relief that a Krispy Kreme had survived the rioting).

Blackberry, however, seems to be a different story. Blogger Jonathan Akwue was first to point out the role of Blackberry's instant message service (BBM) in the riots:

Well, it appears that BBM messages have been circulating since Thursday’s shooting of Duggan by the police. These have fuelled the anger of the youths that have taken to the streets. BBM was also the channel used to spread the word that the riot had started, and from what I can tell on Twitter, it appears to be the means by which communications continue to be shared.

He also explains Blackberry's appeal among young people:

Blackberry's have been produced by Research In Motion (RIM) since 1999. They were originally associated with busy office executives who needed to access their emails on the move, but in recent years they have become increasingly popular within youth and urban cultures. I have to admit that I found this puzzling. It took my far cooler 17 year old nephew to explain that the main reason for their popularity is due to BBM – BlackBerry Messenger.
BBM as it is known, is an instant messenger system that has become popular for three main reasons: it’s fast (naturally), it’s virtually free, and unlike Twitter or Facebook, it’s private.

BBM doesn't just offer more privacy (more on that later), but also the ability to broadcast messages, which then go to all your contacts, and can quickly go viral. Here is an example:

Of course, there is no way of knowing how important the BBM was in inciting the riots, as the messages are private. Brits have rioted before without any help from smartphones. And just as I'm sceptical of "Twitter revolution" narratives, it would be silly to focus on technology here at the expense of other factors such as social depravation, booze, and school holidays. But it is a good reminder that while communications technologies benefit activists fighting oppressive regimes, they can also help rally boozed-up looters.

The "revolutionary" potential of Blackberry won't come as a surprise to the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where the BBM service is heavily used. Last year, those states all had very public standoffs with RIM (the company that makes Blackberry) over their rights to access the data, which is stored on Canadian servers.

According to MobileActive, "while users in some countries see BBM as a fun way to chat with friends, for others, BBM's encrypted data system is the best way to communicate sensitive data outside of the reach of restrictive governments."

Chats on BlackBerry Messenger are encrypted and stored on Canadian servers; governments that want access to messages must go through Research In Motion, the Canadian company that owns Blackberry. In short, BBM is more secure than SMS for users living in restrictive communications environments.

Twitter and Google have been proud of their association with the Arab Spring; I'm not sure Blackberry will feel the same about Tottenham and Enfield, though. Regardless, expect the tabloids to have a field day with the Blackberry connection. There might even be calls to ban such a dangerous new technology or a campaign to "Check your child's BBM." The "Daily Mail" might even manage to get "single mums" or "Muslims" in the headline.