Colum Kenny: When smartphones and social media are neither very smart, nor very social
Cracking down on internet usage isn't the answer to the rioting, but old-fashioned policing is, writes Colum Kenny
A notorious gang boss stood on a corner in Manchester last week, talking into his mobile phone. Flanked by teenagers dressed in black, he was not ordering pizza. Police reportedly suspect that he was orchestrating riots and looting.
Just months after observers were celebrating the use of mobile phones and social media by 'Arab Spring' protesters, UK prime minister David Cameron has condemned their abuse by English rioters. Cameron told parliament last Thursday that, "Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media."
Even before these riots, so-called 'flash robs' by 'flash mobs' were already a problem for retailers in the Unites States. They happen when people gather quickly and rush a store, overwhelming security and stripping shelves of merchandise.
The US National Retail Federation says that in a large minority of cases studied when flash robbers were caught, texting or social media services such as Twitter or Facebook were a primary communications medium among the guilty.
So should police forces have the power to intercept messages and close down access to mobile phones and social networks whenever they suspect that criminals are using them? And would it work?
David Cameron said last week that British police, intelligence services and industry are looking at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services "when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality".
Options range from the drastic to the very personal, and all involve a threat to civil liberties. So Cameron, who got into office hinting at cuts in police resources to save money, needs to convince people that he is not just shamelessly playing on irrational fears of new media among older voters.
Social media and smart phones are a handy scapegoat for politicians who have serious social and economic problems to address. As Padraig Reidy, Irish-born news editor of Britain's Index on Censorship organisation told the New York Times last week, "We've seen this kind of thing time and time again, especially with young people, when it comes to technology. Now it's social networks and smartphones. A few years ago it was video games. Before that it was horror films."
One drastic solution is to turn off transmitters and close down internet services that allow access to mobile phones and social networks. Some Arab states did this as their governments sought to suppress civil disorder that involved political protests.
But that would be a chaotic and dangerous option during riots in a city like London or Manchester. It would hit the guilty and innocent alike, putting lives at risk as citizens became unable to summon emergency services or to inform the police of outbreaks of criminality. It would also damage normal business activities.
So what can you do when criminals send messages like this, one of a number reportedly sent via BlackBerry phones last week? "If you're down for making money, we're about to go hard in east london tonight, yes!!" "We're personally inviting you to come and get it in."
A new law could allow courts to order social media providers and mobile phone companies to cut off people convicted of rioting from their accounts. But committed flash robbers would soon be back in action, using false names to open new accounts.
A more pressing need is for police to be able to access the accounts of suspected criminals in order simply to read their messages. It is claimed that flash robbers and other criminals prefer BlackBerry phones because these encrypt messages in a way that makes them difficult for security forces to read.
The BlackBerry was also the preferred smart phone of media savvy Barack Obama before he became president. Even though it is said not to be entirely secure when it comes to sensitive or classified information. But sophisticated eavesdropping or unencrypting can take time and resources that may not be available to ordinary police forces.
So a more targeted approach after riots end may be the only practical response to the use of social media and mobiles for flash robs. This requires service providers to allow investigators to access the message boxes and other records of individual customers who are suspected of orchestrating or inciting violence.
Internet providers and mobile phone companies are slow to break the confidentiality of their customers. For one thing, in the absence of a very specific court order under clear legislation, they risk being sued for breaches of privacy.
And once companies start handing over data to police forces in democratic countries (where the rule of law prevails and human rights are protected), it becomes harder to resist the demands of dictators that their security forces too be allowed to surf our texts, emails and other postings.
Besides, as David Cameron himself acknowledged in parliament, "Free flow of information can be used for good". Social media were used last week, for example, to help people find safe ways home around riots and to identify some of those who were engaged in robbery and violence.
If there had been enough police on English streets last week, and if they had intervened more promptly and aggressively, then old-fashioned TV news bulletins might have carried a far more effective message to rioters than any number of flash-mob texts or emails.
Colum Kenny is Professor of Communications at DCU