Blackberry’s encrypted messaging system is hugely popular with British teenagers; it is also popular with the rioters who laid waste to areas of London over the weekend. But calls for the service to be suspended are likely to fall on deaf ears.
BlackBerry makers Research in Motion (RIM) remained tight-lipped Wednesday after calls for its free messaging service to be suspended because it was being used by rioters in London.
On Wednesday it remained unclear exactly how far that co-operation would go.
Data security a popular feature
BBM is a closed and encrypted communications system. Users have to share a PIN number to be on each others’ lists, while unlimited single or group messages and chats can be sent instantly and free of charge.
FRANCE 24’s Digital Media Editor Eric Olander said the major attraction of the BlackBerry to London’s rioters is that its low-end models are among the most affordable on the market.
“It costs much less than an iPhone of any of the Android devices,” he said, adding that the BBM system was “free to use and encrypted, meaning the messages cannot be monitored by the police.”
For Wired.co.uk’s Olivia Solon, BBM was the rioter’s communications tool of choice purely because as a free and unlimited mobile platform, it holds a huge appeal to young users.
“BBM is free, instant and extremely popular … and it is hard for the authorities to monitor” Solon told FRANCE 24. “But I don't believe this is the reason why rioters are using it - they are using it because that is just how they communicate.”
Recent research by UK regulator Ofcom shows that more than a third of British teenagers own a BlackBerry device.
The high security of BBM is one of the core elements of the BlackBerry business model, and the devices are popular with both business and government users wary of data theft and espionage.
While BlackBerry said it was cooperating with police, it has to take into account more than 45 million BBM users worldwide – including US President Barack Obama – who value the privacy it offers against platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
RIM has so far declined to elaborate on how far they would go to “assist with the authorities”.
Solon said that in the UK, police could apply to Blackberry under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) – but were restricted to “individual customer's information and cannot trawl through all of their records looking for search terms.”
“Most of the time, and particularly with business customers, customer privacy is more prescient than state security,” she added. “It's only at times of major unrest that it may be important to breach that privacy.”
It is not the first time BlackBerry’s BBM has fallen foul of nervous politicians and governments.
Following the 2010 Mumbai attacks, the Indian government threatened to block BBM for fear it was being used by terrorist cells, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia, wanting to block dissent, also (unsuccessfully) demanded official access to the service.