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Why Has BlackBerry Been Blamed for the London Riots?

• Olivia Solon via

The whole of London is taking stock after outbreaks of violence and looting across the capital. Ealing, Camden, Peckham, Clapham, Lewisham, Woolwich and Hackney have all provided a location for young rioters intent on stealing and vandalizing. So what has the humble BlackBerry got anything to do with it?

Here’s an FAQ:

Doesn’t BlackBerry only make phones for business people?

BlackBerry, owned by Research In Motion (RIM), is not just the smartphone of choice for business executives, it’s also much sought after among the yoof — according to Ofcom, some 37 percent of British teens have a BlackBerry handset. One of the brand’s main draws is BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) — a free instant messaging service that allows BlackBerry owners to communicate with each other on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis. So popular is the service that it’s largely replaced text messaging between BlackBerry users because it’s free, instant and allows you to quickly communicate with all of the contacts with whom you have shared your BBM PIN.

But there are lots of instant messaging services, what makes BBM so special?
With the protests in the Middle East that dominated the headlines earlier this year, Twitter and Facebook were credited with rallying the masses. They provided an easy way to rally people very quickly, broadcasting details about the protests. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, however, BBM messages are largely untraceable by the authorities. BlackBerry automatically encrypts messages sent to another person’s BlackBerry when using their PIN — this means that the messages cannot be intercepted by a government or mobile network. As such the service has become very popular in the Middle East where it is used to criticize authorities, which explains why Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates tried to block BBM and other functions last year.
So how has BBM been used during the London riots?

It’s been used in fundamentally the same way as one might use Twitter, with widespread calls to action being broadcast to groups of contacts, except under PIN protection. One BBM broadcast sent on Sunday and shown to the Guardian called for people from all over London to vandalize shops on Oxford Street and to attack the police. It read: “Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUT! if you see a fed… SHOOT!”. Another message read: “Everyone in edmonton enfield wood green everywhere in north link up at enfield town station at 4 o clock sharp!!!!”

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