London’s Metropolitan police were able to stop riots planned at Olympics sites and high-end shopping centers by “breaking in” to encrypted social messaging sites. The†Guardian reports that detectives searched the messages on the mobile phones of those who’d been arrested and thus found out about planned riots and looting, and then sent police to those locations in advance. Just today, the police also revealed that they had considered turning off social messaging sites including Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry messaging but, as acting Metropolitan police commissioner, Tim Godwin said, they learned they did not have the legal powers to do so.
Godwin also commented that the social networking sites were a useful “intelligence asset” for police to monitor. On Monday, the Guardian reported that police had brought in the security service MI5 and the electronic interception centre GCHQ to track down people who had used social messaging sites in organizing last week’s riots, and to seek how heavily encrypted Blackberry messages might be broken into.
In addressing Members of Parliament on the home affairs committee who are beginning an investigation into the riots, Godwin also said that Prime Minister David Cameron had been “wrong to tell the House of Commons last week that his officers had been too timid when faced with rioters and looters” and rejected the government’s claim that a “massive surge of officers” had quelled the rioting.
The London police’s reporting of how they’ve been “policing” — surveying — social media sites for information about the rioting comes at a time when Facebook, Twitter and other digital communication services are coming under scrutiny by law enforcement. Last Thursday, San Francisco’s BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system shut off cell phone service to preempt planned demonstrations to condemn the killing of Charles Blair Hill, who was shot by BART police officers on July 3 after they received complaints about a drunken man. No protests were held and BART has been scrambling to explain its actions in the face of concerns about free speech and public safety.
Then yesterday night, roving protests led to BART closing four stations — Civic Center, Powell, Montgomery and Embarcadero, all in the heart of San Francisco’s downtown and commercial areas — at commute time. BART police in riot gear blocked entrances as commuters stood on sidewalks; service was not resumed until 7:30 pm. On Sunday, the hacker group Anonymous had broken into a BART website and released personal information from more than 2,000 customers. Anonymous’ action is being investigated by the FBI while BART itself is facing an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission.
Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites were widely heralded for their role in the Egyptian revolution. But recent events have shown how such digital tools can play a role, in the case of the UK riots, in criminal acts. In addition, new technologies mean that governments find themselves in uncertain territory as they seek to address concerns about public safety and the right to free speech.
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Photo of London Olympics site under construction by amandabhslater