Anti-social media?

The Engineer

The UK’s recent disturbances have prompted a number of urgent debates, not least what, if any, role the government and police can play in identifying and addressing the underlying causes.

Mounted riot police in Manchester city centre
Mounted riot police in Manchester city centre

But beyond the wider social and political issues, the outbreaks of looting and violence that swept across England last week have also raised a number of questions relevant to the  UK’s technology sector. 

In the teeth of the riots, the police came close to using baton rounds (plastic bullets) to quell the violence. Mercifully, this wasn’t the case, but with the government apparently giving police the go-ahead to use greater force, it seems probable to expect a less restrained response in future. But are plastic bullets – with their highly charged symbolism, and questionable “non-lethal” status, really the best available option? As The Engineer has reported before, the field of non-lethal weapons research is awash with ideas for dispersing violence – from dazzling lasers, to acoustic canons, and even incapacitating sticky foam. Perhaps the time is right to revisit these technologies.

More pressingly however, last week’s events have also prompted a debate over the technology that is increasingly at the heart of the way we communicate with each other: social media.

Reports that last week’s violence was partly orchestrated by users of Twitter, Facebook and the Blackberry Messaging (BBM) Service has prompted many to call for police powers to switch off social messaging services.  Indeed, Downing Street is already said to be considering the technical questions of how to grant new powers blocking Twitter and Blackberry.

But the armies of broom-wielding residents – also mobilised via social media – who took to the streets the morning after some of the worst rioting tell a different story. What’s more, it’s now emerged that social messaging sites were also a useful intelligence asset, and that by breaking into the encrypted BBM service, police were able to prevent attacks on the Olympic site and Oxford Street in London.

Last week’s events brought into stark focus the positive and negative applications of social media, and putting the technical and legal issues to one side, the likely impact of shutting down social media services is impossible to predict. What seems likely to have more value is an increased focus on the techniques required to crack encrypted messaging services, and, should the need arise, monitor communications in real-time. Police could, perhaps, learn some valuable lessons from the UK’s defence industry, which, as we’ve also reported, is increasingly focussed on the world of cyber-security.