Today, according to The Guardian, the Met admitted ‘breaking into’ Blackberry private messaging, and ‘contemplating’ shutting down social media during Monday’s riots. But all this raises another intriguing possibility – that the Metropolitan Police already used its relationship with mobile network operators earlier this week to restrict network access in areas where lawlessness was prevalent.
What’s the evidence? Walking down the Walworth Road in South East London on Monday evening, I tried to send a text five times from the O2 network and each time the system failed. At least one other person had similar problems, but other reports on social media complained that network coverage went down in Hackney and in Peckham. This is unusual, but might happen for a number of reasons. It’s entirely possible that the mobile network was simply overloaded, of course, with panicked local residents trying to ensure the safety of loved ones.
Just to be sure, I asked the Metropolitan Police. The question I posed late last week was “Has the Met at any time in the previous four days attempted to shut down or otherwise restrict mobile networks, Blackberry private networks or the internet in the affected areas? If so, how so?” I asked this question of their press office three times. Eventually a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police came back to with the bald answer. “We are not prepared to discuss.” Which, given that the operation is no longer ongoing, is very far from a blunt denial.
The question of whether the authorities restrict or clamp down on coverage is intriguing for a number of reasons. For a start, it tells us something interesting about the way that the various departments of department work together with industry to manage crises. But it’s also of much broader political significance. In recent years authoritarian regimes everywhere from Iran to Belarus have successfully restricted access to their mobile networks in an attempt to damp down protests, and been roundly condemned for it by Western. The American State Department, for example, has expended a great deal of time and effort furnishing activists with the software to outwit this kind of surveillance. The outbreaks of lawlessness we’ve seen this week were very far from political protests. On the other hand, we do need to know how and on what occasions the authorities can move to shut down mobile networks – and what the consequences might be. And there’s a precedent for all this. Last October, the inquest into the 7/7 bombings heard that a senior officer from City of London Police had invoked powers to restrict use of the O2 network around Aldgate Tube station to members of the emergency services with special handsets. Lady Justice Hallett, the coroner, even noted that she had problems using her mobile on the day. July 7, 2005 bombings in London. That decision, the inquest heard, was limited to the 02 network and to the City of London Aldgate area. It was taken by a City of London Police superintendent at 11.40am under something called the Access Overload Control (ACCOLC) system. The mobile operator 02 duly restricted access for two hours after the bombings, and kept the restriction in place for the next five hours – which might well have hampered the emergency response. There were problems with other networks too on July 7, but that was largely because they were overloaded with people trying to get in touch with their family and friends.
But that was different to the ACCLOC decision, which proved deeply controversial. A report by the London Assembly in 2006 went as far as to criticise that decision. Some police officials might even have misled the London Assembly about the problems which occurred on the day. At the time of the 2006 report, the City Police, according to The Economist’s writer about technology and public policy Kenneth Cukier, initially failed to admit that it went outside the chain of command to request that a wireless operator provide telecom capacity to certain emergency-responders by degrading service for everybody else, even though the Metropolitan Police had earlier decided this was unnecessary.
O2 told me that they took no steps to restrict network coverage during the riots in the last week. But there were lots of other network operators for the police to call upon. New media can be used by the perpetrators of violence and disorder, but for the most part they weren’t using social media but semi-private networks like Blackberry Messenger. New and social media can certainly be used to spread panic dis-information, possibly a larger threat in instances of domestic disorder like we’ve seen in the last week. But at times like this a panicky over-reaction by the authorities usually makes things worse. Access to online and mobile networks is now as ubiquitous as oxygen, and cutting off the supply can itself sow the seeds of panic and paralysis – and prevent ordinary people from breathing deeply and then getting on with their lives.