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The privacy consequences of the UK riots

August 25, 2011 By: Dr Search Principal Consultant at the Search Clinic Category: data security, internet, mobile phones, smart phones, Social Media, Social Networking, Tablets, Technology Companies, Uncategorized

There are two inevitable privacy-related consequences of the current spate of riots and civil disorder across the UK. The privacy consequences of the UK riotsThe first is that technology such as social media and mobile networks will feel the heat of condemnation for facilitating the chaos. The second is that there will be a renewed attempt to implement new surveillance and law enforcement measures.

The blame game has already started. Inevitably, it begins with parents.

They should be keeping their children under control – or at least keeping them at home. Parents should certainly be turning their children over to the police if looted items are discovered under the bed.

This, for the moment, is the cross-party line being held by police, government and Opposition. However, as with previous city-wide disturbances elsewhere – including Paris – this fantasy is unlikely to hold viability for long, and so the blame will need to become more specific.

The MP for Ealing – one of the affected trouble spots – told the BBC that the riots are being organised on social media sites, while Twitter is a conduit for disinformation intended to confuse police operations planning. “Something”, she declared, must be done.

For example, the Home Office’s Interception Modernisation Programme – rebranded as the “Communications Capabilities Development Programme” – will almost certainly be presented as a crucial tool for crime prevention.

That project aims to technologically infiltrate social networks on a mass scale but until recently it had been abandoned in the wake of the Coalition government’s commitment to place limits on the extent of State surveillance. The Home Office will at some point argue that the scheme should be escalated and expanded.

Private briefings to journalists by police and Home Office officials claim that ringleaders are using “clandestine” and more private communications methods such as BlackBerry Messaging – methods that officials argue are largely immune from open scrutiny by police. Law enforcement by this reasoning is being outflanked by systems that are intentionally designed for private communications.

Now technology commentators are being wheeled into television studios with a remarkably similar analysis: new technologies are gifts to criminals.

The consequent media reporting is confused. One BBC report today holds encryption responsible for the cloak of criminal secrecy offered by Blackberry.

This, despite a public statement by the company that it continues to cooperate fully with authorities.

Notably, no government MP has so far pinned blame for the riots on the decimation of police budgets and resources over the past eighteen months. Of equal note, few MP’s have so far pinned blame on failed fiscal policy, a generation of institutional racial abuse by police or the collapse of support for community and family support programmes.

Needless to say, no-one has dared question the quality of media reporting and its’ possible role in the chain of events. Remarkably, little has been said of the role of computer games, though that link will emerge (the acting Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police gave it away when he stated “this is not just a game”).

Where does all this leave us? Clearly new technologies are an easy target for blame, just as monarchs of centuries ago would blame coffee houses as the cause of social disorder and treason.

It remains a mystery why police continue to claim that they have been taken by surprise by the nature of these events. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of actions inspired through 4-Chan would understand that the ground rules changed years ago. To hold information networks liable would be a dangerously short sighted position.

If there was ever a need for an evidence based approach to a social problem, this is it. When Parliament meets to discuss the riots it should demand evidence to back up any claim of blame, and it should institute a rigorous process to ensure that any response is justified, lawful, viable and fair.
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