BUSINESS
08/09/2011 03:38 EDT | Updated 10/09/2011 05:12 EDT

Research In Motion, BlackBerry Maker, Caught In London Riots' Crossfire

AP

Research In Motion, the Waterloo, Ontario-based maker of the BlackBerry, has found itself caught in the crossfire of the London riots, thanks to its messenger service.

Since the riots broke out in north London over the weekend, reports have been pouring in that BlackBerry’s messenger service, BBM, has been the tool of choice for people organizing riots.

And after RIM declared it would cooperate with police in tracking down the rioters, the company has found itself under attack from hackers. According to the British tech blog The Register, the blog section of the BlackBerry website was defaced on Tuesday.

"No Blackberry you will NOT assist the police," said a statement from hacking group TeaMp0isoN on the hacked RIM blog.

You Will _NOT_ assist the UK Police because if u do 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, the Police are looking to arrest as many people as possible to save themselves from embarrassment…. if you make the wrong choice your database will be made public, save yourself the embarrassment and make the right choice. don’t be a puppet.

That overt threat came a day after RIM’s UK branch declared in a Tweet that it has “engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can.”

But RIM’s promises of cooperation weren’t enough for David Lammy, the Member of Parliament for Tottenham, where the riots began Friday night. Lammy has called for BBM to be suspended, in order to calm the riots that moved into their fourth day on Tuesday.

While many observers have drawn a parallel between the rioters' use of BlackBerry Messenger and the use of Twitter and Facebook in the Arab Spring earlier this year, one significant difference is that, while Twitter and Facebook are largely public, BBM is a person-to-person technology. And while regular text messaging and phone calls can be monitored in real time, encrypted BBM messages cannot.

"This is one of the reasons why unsophisticated criminals are outfoxing an otherwise sophisticated police force," Lammy tweeted. "BBM is different as it is encrypted and police can't access it."

The U.K.’s law enforcement agencies have been in the vanguard of efforts to use social and online media to fight crime. They have been known to use Facebook to break up illegal parties, among other things.

However it’s uncertain how much help RIM could provide to police. Sameet Kanade, an analyst at Northern Securities in Toronto, told Reuters that “RIM has always claimed it is unable to de-encrypt/decipher messages routed through” its encrypted servers. Thus switching the entire service off may prove to be the only option.

RIM’s encrypted communications have ruffled more than a few feathers around the world, particularly among repressive governments interested in suppressing unwanted political speech.

Several countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, threatened to ban the BlackBerry if RIM didn’t give them access to BlackBerry messages. RIM reportedly agreed to provide access.

Short of shutting down the service across all of London, The Telegraph lists the options that police have in tracking down rioters through BlackBerry.

The paper says police could ask for a warrant to decrypt BBM messages, but would run a political risk in using a tool designed to fight terrorism, not looters. Another option would be to subpoena RIM to provide the content of messages, but this would be a very time-consuming process. Finally, police could infiltrate rioters’ groups and collect message info through undercover officers.

The BlackBerry is the most popular smartphone among British youth, capturing 37 per cent of the market.