Saturday, August 13, 2011

UK Govt seeks to control social networks

The British government has said it is looking into ways to control social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry's BBM message system following a week of riots and mayhem on Britain's streets which was partly coordinated using social media.

There is already concern amongst users of social networks who have drawn comparisons with the way sites such as Twitter are tightly controlled in authoritarian regimes [FT]. As well as technical and legal issues, there are also doubts over the effect blocking such services might have.

Organising before social media

Even before social media there have been riots. Before the advent of Twitter and smartphones, SMS texts have been used to connect between individuals and regular phone calls have also been used to coordinate activity. But even before mobile phones were an everyday item people were still able to organise.

There was undoubtedly some coordination between troublemakers before the 1990 Poll Tax march which descended into widespread chaos and rioting across much of the West End of London.

In the 1980s many an animal rights' march would descend into chaos as it arrived at the focus of attention such as an animal testing laboratory. Anarchists and violent agitators often gravitated to such regular events, though coordination would be organised though phone calls over landlines and even regular post. Badly photocopied lists of upcoming marches would often be handed around at protests and at concerts, not only rallying together protesters for the cause but also potential troublemakers.

The infamous Stop the City demonstrations which began in 1983 was organised primarily by a leafleting campaign. London Greenpeace, which was an unconnected offshoot of the main organisation, was partly behind the organising of the initial idea. But other groups spread the word with stickers and leaflets ultimately bringing several thousand onto the streets of the City. There were violent clashes with police and the financial quarter was effectively locked down as crowds of protesters filled the surrounding streets.

Just as the Internet raised the public profile of organisation which would have only been known at a grass roots level, social networks have merely brought the organisation of event to a larger audience and sped up the procedure.

The Stop the City protest of March 1983 was talked about for many weeks prior to its happening and with stickers all over the London Underground authorities would have been well aware that an illegal protest was in the offing. Yet police were caught out by numbers and the level of violence.

Twitter & Blackberrys

The anonymity of Twitter and Blackberry's BBM services has brought extra bravado perhaps not seen so brazenly before. However, there are laws in place which may be helpful if such individuals are identified to be deliberately inciting others to break the law. Twitter users may be more easily identified since British courts can compel the company to supply user information. With such data the identity of the users could potentially be established. While a Twitter user may hide their real name in their Twitter profile they will have had to use an email address in order to sign up for the service. In many cases the signing pup for an email account might require real details including an address. Facebook particularly rejects users with names that are not real.

This week the prime minister David Cameron said he was looking at ways to inhibit the use of such services. "We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality," he told MPs on Thursday.

While monitoring of such services can be useful to the police both during and after disturbances few people would be so daft as to blatantly call for a riot, though one individual has been arrested for inciting violence on Facebook [Guardian].


Police intelligence gathering is already fairly advanced as regards to quasi-public communications media such as Twitter and Facebook. Many messages are viewable by anyone, and there are security firms lining up to provide authorities with software tools to make mass, real time monitoring easier. Websites like Twitterfall is often used by journalists to search keywords in realtime, an indicator of the way technology can be used to monitor events [Telegraph].

Rioters are unlikely to talk openly on social networks. Instead any messages sent are probably going to be sent as private messages, a Direct Message in Twitter, or by using the even more secure Blackberry message system [Telegraph].

Police have powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to seize stored messages, but the process involves a mountain of paperwork and would useless in an ongoing crisis. As regards BlackBerry Messenger conversations it is unclear how much data is stored by the company since its message service is supposed to be private and secure. The company says it is "engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can" [ZDNet]. But there have already been threats from some who hacked the company website [Telegraph].

Question of censorship

There is much talk in the media suggesting that blocking Twitter, Facebook and others would be too difficult. In legal terms and in immediate practical terms this might be true [Telegraph]. However, it is entirely possible to do so. In China the Blackberry is not on sale primarily because Research In Motion have yet to appease the Chinese government concerning its message service. As far as other services such as Twitter, Facebook and other social media, these are entirely blocked by the so-called Great Firewall of China. While a VPN can circumvent these blocks China has recently shown it has the technology to affect VPNs with DNS poisoning attacks and other methods. In short it is possible to impede access to such service, though even in China there is social disorder and riots. Blocking may have some effect, but people will always look for other ways to circumvent such restrictions.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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