Shutting Down Encrypted Services During Emergencies

Without a doubt, you’ve seen the devastation inflicted through the images and videos coming from London over the past few days. Our own Reuters team has been incredible. If you haven’t seen this link, take a look at the live blogging that we are doing.

There have also been a number of stories talking about usage of Blackberry Messenger (BBM) as the means by which rioters have communicated. Although it seems to come as a shock to many that it is the Blackberry which has been used as a means for rioters and looters to communicate via the Blackberry Messenger application, it does not surprise those of us who have worked in the mobile space and understand the nuances of the United Kingdom mobile market. As recently as one week ago, a story ran on the Boy Genius site which noted that British adults are tremendous fans of the iPhone whilst teens have gravitated towards the Blackberry. The Messenger product was discovered by British teens several years ago and as the price of those devices dropped dramatically (along with the introduction of versions in different colours), it became the de-facto phone of choice, since the BBM enabled a free and easy way to communicate with friends.

On this blog yesterday, we posted a graphic that shows how BBM traffic is encrypted which has made it difficult for the police to deal with. You might recall earlier stories this year where India and some Middle Eastern nations wanted to shut down Blackberry usage in their countries, because it was impossible for them to intercept email traffic.

This brings me to a very interesting question which I expect may stir some lively discussion. Knowing that BBM is being used for this sort of activity, what do you think about the right of a government to require such an encrypted service to be shut down? Or to at least enable a way to be tapped in special times of emergency? It is without doubt a very slippery slope as one can always question “what defines an emergency.” That said, consider some of the responses to the violence that have come from Iran and China – to the point where China is now questioning the safety of athletes for the London 2012 Olympic games. The argument that both nations make is that this is what happens when you have no controls at all on social media and perhaps such complacency should be reconsidered.

I think that things like this are a bit like the “whack-a-mole” game. Sure, you could try to restrict BBM access, but those that are intent on such wanton destruction will find another way to communicate. There are certainly means of conducting secure chat sessions on the web, but perhaps the general ubiquity of mobile means that outbreaks can be much more widespread due to this ubiquity versus usage of more web/PC based technologies. I tend to believe that any technology can be used for both good purposes as well as not so good ones – do you outlaw a mobile phone because it could be used as a device for setting off a bomb remotely? Of course not. What I think this does do however is send out a wake-up call to governments and public safety in general – there is a real lack of understanding of the capabilities of technology at all levels and a clear need for them to understand the “art of the possible” and how these devices can be used in ways that go against the good that mobile and other technologies provide.

Let us know what you think and how governments/public safety should respond in the future.

Bob Schukai is global head of mobile technology at Thomson Reuters, where he is responsible for overseeing the development and execution of mobile growth strategy across the organization. Prior to joining Thomson Reuters, Schukai was vice president of wireless/broadband technologies for Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. from 2005 to 2010. During that time, he was responsible for global research and development activities in the areas of mobile/wireless, broadband, Internet protocol television, and games. Schukai also spent more than 18 years working for Motorola in the US and United Kingdom. In his last role at Motorola, he served as director of global 3G strategy and business development. He is a 24-year member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a technical and professional association of more than 365,000 individual members in approximately 150 countries.