The Blackberry Effect

For the past four days, riots in Britian have shaken the country. Reports emphasize that the RIM Blackberry is the technology preferred for the spread of information regarding the attacks.

According to the NPR Marketplace Tech report, “the Guardian originally was “monitoring chat about the riots on Blackberry’s BBM messaging service and posting newsworthy posts that it sees. But the paper now says it’s going to stop publishing messages that anticipate violence.”

The riots have created a number of legal challenges. RIM may be called on to retain the information being communicated on its servers. Some analysts are musing over RIM’s ability to voluntarily provide this data to governmental officials, but such voluntary action is not likely under E.U. privacy directives. Government compulsion is another matter. RIM may find itself obligated to provide the data.

But RIM is not alone. The controversial Google face recognition software — and similar technologies privately available — may be used to identify the rioters for later prosecution. Similar questions have arisen in Vancouver after the looting triggered following Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Tech Crunch has reported about a recently launched Google Group,  “London Riots Facial Recognition.”  “The group’s goal is to use facial recognition technologies to identify the looters who appear in online photos.” Others are using Facebook tools to farm similar information.

The riots and the public response put notions on privacy to a new test. Some of these tools are owned by governmental agencies. Others, however, are part of the social media environment and are being used by private citizens. The riots represent senseless violence and most appears divorced from any political action. Still, the notion that one’s public photographs can be used by fellow citizens to inform the police of criminal activity echoes of more insidious government enforcement.

The combination of messaging data and facial recognition software may combine to change the relationship between police and criminals. So long as this doesn’t change the relationship between the public and the state, that might be reasonable. But the difference may beg the question.