So there is such a thing as bad publicity. In the immediate aftermath of the riots in London and other major UK cities earlier this week, attentions quickly turned to the methods used by the rioters to co-ordinate their mayhem. It soon became clear that the main tool used was BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), RIM’s proprietary IM service on its BlackBerry smartphones.
The widespread usage of the service appeared to take many by surprise. While everyone (including, presumably, the police) seems well aware of the role played by social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, BBM appears to be something of an underground success. Indeed, there is a dark irony in the fact that looting hooligans are now carrying devices once favoured by well-heeled businessmen (the fact that those businessmen are now more likely to be using an iPhone reflects the more conventional problems facing RIM at the moment).
Unlike Twitter and Facebook, where activity is often public, the closed, encrypted nature of BBM makes it ideal for co-ordinating this type of criminal behaviour. Whether the rioters were aware of this is hard to know, but it creates an unwinnable dilemma for RIM UK. Either they unencrypt the system to allow the authorities to monitor the service and face privacy complaints, or they do nothing and get accused of colluding with lawbreakers.
On Monday, RIM tweeted from its official BlackBerry UK account that it would “[engage] with the authorities to assist in any way we can.” But in another unpleasant twist it then found itself under attack from a hacking group known as Team Poison, which hacked into RIM’s official blog to warn of the dire consequences if it handed over information about users to the police. While not appearing to support the riots, the group’s argument was that "innocent members of the public who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and owned a BlackBerry will get charged for no reason at all." It went on to warn: "If you make the wrong choice your database will be made public, save yourself the embarrassment and make the right choice.”
At the time of writing, it is unclear to what degree RIM is “engaging” with the police but they are now under immense pressure to do so. Indeed, UK Prime Minister David Cameron name-checked BBM specifically in a speech to Parliament on Thursday. “Police were facing a new circumstance where rioters were using the BlackBerry Messenger service, a closed network, to organise riots. We've got to examine that and work out how to get ahead of them."
It is not the first time RIM has faced such issues. Last year, governments in India and across the Middle East threatened to ban BlackBerry services such as BBM that they were unable to monitor, citing security concerns. RIM stood firm on this one, arguing that the security features were an integral part of its corporate offering and that even the company itself had no “master key” which would allow it to snoop-in on activity. Discussions between RIM and these governments are still on-going, but you can be sure that the events in London this week haven’t strengthened RIM’s position.
If all this wasn’t enough to contend with, Facebook (with impeccable timing) this week unveiled its own mobile IM app, Facebook Messenger, which is set to become a major competitor to BBM. Apple launched its own iMessage only a few weeks ago. Under normal circumstances, heightened competition from the likes of Apple and Facebook would be a cause for major concern. But right now, RIM probably won’t mind a few of its more disreputable UK “customers” switching to another service.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members