Critics and hacker groups are lashing out at the UK government and at BlackBerry maker RIM after British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested the UK could block social media services and get user data from mobile phones to shut down further riots.
In his opening statement during a Commons debate on Thursday, Cameron told parliament the government is looking at banning individuals from using sites like Twitter and Facebook if they are believed to be plotting criminal activity.
“The prime minister did not go into specifics about how such a block could work, what evidence would be needed to trigger it, and whether it would apply only to individuals or could see networks shut down entirely — instead saying only that the government was looking at the issue,” Metro reports.
Cameron recalled MPs from summer recess to address the increasing violence and riots happening throughout London.
According to the Guardian, Cameron also said the government will hold meetings with Facebook, Twitter and Research In Motion (RIM), makers of the BlackBerry, to discuss “their responsibilities” in this area.
As the BBC reports, under UK law, police are legally allowed to request data from someone’s mobile phone if the information relates to criminal activity.
“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media,” Cameron told Parliament. “The free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill.
“So we are working with the police, intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
Cameron has also told broadcasters such as the BBC and Sky News they should turn-in unused footage to help police. That request has been met with opposition from broadcasters who say handing over unused footage would damage their editorial independence.
While the UK government continues to put the blame on social media websites for playing a role in the riots, Metro reports evidence has yet to show Facebook or Twitter played a significant role.
That said, technology has played a part; the uprising in the UK has been dubbed the “BlackBerry riots” by media because several reports indicate people are using the BlackBerry’s instant messaging features to plan and organize riots and looting.
Earlier this week Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, went as far as asking RIM to shut down its BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) service on Twitter. “Immediate action needed,” he Tweeted. “[Londoners] cannot have another evening like last night tonight. BBM clearly helping rioters outfox police. Suspend it.”
RIM raised eyebrows when it confirmed via Twitter it was indeed helping police. “We feel for those impacted by the riots in London,” the Tweet reads. “We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.”
RIM’s move to help police has caused outrage among hackers and a BlackBerry blog was hacked in response.
The hack was sent as a warning by a group calling itself “Team Poison.” As Computer Weekly reports Team Poison has threatened to publish personal data of RIM employees if the company cooperates with police by handing over user data.
“Team Poison said it did not condone innocent people or small businesses being attacked in the riots, but said it supported attacks on police and government,” Computer Weekly reports. “The hacker group said it was opposed to Blackberry giving user information to police because it could lead to the wrong people being targeted.”
Meanwhile, Cameron says the government continues to use social media and technology to its advantage, publishing photos of people accused of looting online. “No phoney human rights concerns about publishing photographs will get in the way of bringing these criminals to justice,” Cameron said.
“Events like the recent riots are frequently used to attack civil liberties,” he said. “Policing should be targeted at actual offenders, with the proper protection of the courts. How do people ‘know’ when someone is planning to riot? Who makes that judgment? The only realistic answer is the courts must judge. If court procedures are not used, then we will quickly see abuses by private companies and police. Companies like RIM must insist on court processes. Citizens also have the right to secure communications. Business, politics and free speech relies on security and privacy.”