Thu Dec 08 16:23:02 CAT 2016

Don't blame BlackBerry

Reuters | 2011-08-11 00:23:23.0
A youth collects clothing looted from a store in Hackney, east London, as a car smoulders. BlackBerry Message Service, BBM, is being blamed for fuelling the fire because the messages cannot be intercepted by a government or cellular network Picture: OLIVIA HARRIS/REUTERS

Here we go again: Young people, rioting in the streets, railing against leadership, using their cellphones to outsmart law enforcement caught off guard by the nimbleness of cool kids in what would be a B-movie script if it wasn't unfolding in real time.

But this time it isn't happening in the Middle Eastern place. No, this is happening in the homeland of Sir Thomas Moore, Winston Churchill and Kate Middleton.

And, for a pleasant change, the technology being blamed/credited for fuelling the fire is neither Facebook nor Twitter, but BlackBerry Message Service - one of the oldest means of cellphone-to-cellphone text communication, known among aficionados simply as BBM.

It is, of course, a distinction without a difference. Cellphones don't start riots. Sometimes, people with cellphones do. Sadly, we still seem years away from the time when how people communicate is utterly irrelevant to what they are saying and doing. As the Wall Street Journal's Ben Rooney puts it: "The simple fact is that social media can no more take the credit for the "Arab Spring" than the blame for the "London Summer".

They may have played a role but simply because they are the communication tool of the day. Communication technology is morally neutral.

Still, this comes as a curious variation on the theme. The fact that BlackBerrys are the cellphone of choice among Britain's youth (well, at least those prone to this onset of violent street demonstrations) might strike the casual observer as a peculiar factoid. UK communications regulator Ofcom says 37% of British teens have a BlackBerry.

And there is another thing: BBM messages are largely untraceable. As my wired.co.uk colleague Olivia Solon notes, this privacy aspect makes the handset popular in places where there is less reverence to due process than the UK.

BlackBerry automatically encrypts messages sent to another person's BlackBerry when using their PIN - this means that the messages cannot be intercepted by a government or cellular network. As such the service has become very popular in the Middle East where it is used to criticise authorities, which explains why Saudi Arabia and the UAE tried to block BBM and other functions last year.

Either way, this is lousy news for BlackBerry, which has been beset by bad news for a while now that Apple and Google has made it a marginalised player, even in the enterprise where it once reigned supreme. For Research in Motion, this is already a daunting image challenge: Fairly or not, its brand is being singled out for enabling riots.

In a tweet in the midst of all this they have tried to walk a careful line, expressing sympathy for "those impacted by the riots in London" but also saying they were "engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can".

That last bit may haunt them if still-loyal customers who value the messaging flexibility and peace of mind they enjoy with BlackBerrys is compromised in some kind of backlash. Value propositions turn on a dime, even if wireless contracts take a bit longer.

But we need to start ignoring the smokescreen that is the entire subject of how tech is responsible for bad or undesired behaviour. That is the stuff of Fahrenheit 451-esque oppressive regimes. Let's hope there are no calls for any parliamentary inquiries into the role of tech, or witch-hunt subpoenas for BlackBerry messages.

Churchill would have wanted it that way.

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