Were the London “Riots” Merely Cover for Organized Looting?

Posted on 23 August 2011 by

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I was speaking the other day to my friend Chris Swan, who’s always several years ahead in his thinking about matters of information security.

I mentioned some of the silliness from the London Riots (my friend David spotted, in the midst of a group of about 200 masked and marauding ‘yoofs,’ a Pizza Hut delivery guy on a bike, carrying a large pie and nervously looking for the address of someone sensible enough not to go out in the riots, for example), and Chris said, ‘Well, they may not have actually been riots at all.’

Hmm.

Now, I know Chris is about to say something interesting when he pauses and says, “So…”, and that’s what he did then.

Before I go on, let me state the obvious: rioting, looting, property damage and assault are all serious crimes, and neither PLI nor I condone them – in fact, we’d be delighted to slap the cuffs personally on those responsible. The point of this post is determining a) who that might be and b) to discuss whether a fairly clever and new method of committing organized shoplifting may be behind the London Riots.

[UPDATE: Also, as the comment below on flash mobs indicates, this is related. However we are questioning whether this takes flash mobs to a new and more organized level – see the comment thread]

[UPDATE: A UK police officer friend has forwarded an excellent compilation graph which shows, in the words of the Guardian newspaper, that “the majority of surging social media traffic occurred after the first verified reports of incidents in an area.” There’s still some question in my mind about the specific time of the incident as depicted in the graph – was this set by cameras, reports to police or other means?]

Chris mentioned to me that he’d read on the 11th of August a pretty good article by Mike Butcher in TechCrunch Europe, in which Butcher claims to have interviewed one of those at the heart of the disturbances.

What annoyed Chris was that Butcher had come so close and then failed to move the story away from the stupid drama of whether organizers were using social media as a riot organization comms channel (read this and this hand-wringing  in The Telegraph, which apparently seeks [like British Prime Minister Cameron and his ill-informed supporters] to blame Twitter for looting and fires*).

If we read Butcher’s piece and particularly the interviews with the gang member, we see that this was not a technology, but a crime story, unfolding in three distinct stages.

Stage I: Organized Looting Using pre-paid, disposable and effectively untraceable cell-phones, organized shoplifting gang members conduct targeting and planning, then initiate attacks against retail establishments. They smash-and-grab specific high-ticket items (the Daily Mail reported that the most popular targets were electronics shops like Currys, Argos, Comet and PC World).

Stage II: Criminal Camouflage Using Blackberry’s encrypted network, these organized criminals inform other hoodlums and youth and disaffected folk who fancy themselves marauders of the availability of targets: easy pickings for the second group, wonderful cover and forensic deflection for the first.

Stage III: Send In The Clowns As the first waves of the second stage hit the shops, word gets out on Twitter and Facebook and, I don’t know, Yob Space, and we begin the Revenge of the Clueless. This is the “malignant Flashmob” part of the puzzle, and the part which has captivated the media and the government.  Which is, when you think about it, both par for the course and completely ridiculous.

If you’re wondering why middle-class, relatively well-off (if not downright loaded) kids would burn cars and set buildings alight, here’s one theory: they’re idiots.

Or at the best, pawns. My favorite bits are when pro-anarchist and even pro-Anonymous folks on the Twitter were blathering about how these were democratic expressions of society’s hatred of Da Man.

To that I only point out that many of my more anti-police-powers friends in London were asking me during the night why the police were not, for example, arresting those in facemasks. Last week they were busting my chops about arresting Meth salesmen for its overtones of ‘storm trooper’ tactics; this week they want me to sack people up for their fashion statements.

I digress.

In Butcher’s piece, his source, “Paul”, tells us:

“The key guys that want to make money will go and do whatever they want to do to get cash and then messages will go out there. They may well send out messages saying ‘it’s kicking off’ in XY and Z, and then other people turn up and trash the place, like JD Sports. It’s low value items, but to kids and stuff – it’s what they want. Maybe computer games as well.”

Ultimately, the absolute core organisation of a hit on a place doesn’t go on any tech or mobile platform.

As Paul flatly says: “I don’t think anyone into dodgy business would put anything into writing that can be traced back. It doesn’t make sense. Just because you’re a criminal doesn’t mean you’re stupid.”

The tragedy here is that, under strict terror laws in the UK, courts are handing out jail sentences for those involved in “planning” or “inciting” the riots on Facebook, like the young man sentenced to four years for just such crimes, though apparently his posts did not result in any rioting. Throw away the key!

In their zeal to punish those responsible for the horrific acts, UK authorities may well be going after exactly the wrong people.

What do you know about these organization tactics? Are we right or completely missing the boat? Have you seen these kinds of tactics elswehere? How can they be combated? Give us your thoughts, below.

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A Long Footnote
*Having been in Moscow through the failed Soviet Putsch of August, 1991, and having watched attempts recently to stanch the flow of electronic and other communication during the Arab Spring, I can say that attempts to cut off means of communication are just a big waste of time and in fact may make matters worse.

Part of the reason that it is stupid now is that same reason that it was stupid during the putsch. To remind you, the Sovs had done Soviet Coup Play No 1 and cut off the television and radio as well as international phone service. You knew, when you were in Soviet Russia, that when you heard Swan Lake on all the state-run radio, something was amiss – it was the all-purpose insurrection music of choice.

As I wrote in 1994:

[The] plotters neglected to turn off several avenues of communication with the West. From the ‘what on earth were they thinking’ department: Western news cameras were allowed to report from Moscow almost unhindered, and cellular communications and electronic mail were left intact, while an order from the government early in the coup placed a ban on, among other and of all things, home video recorders.

So too go contemporary governmental attempts to block communictions. As anyone who’s tried to stop someone from smuggling information out of a company (or indeed anyone who has flown on a TSA-protected airline) knows, much of the technology and many of the procedures in place to secure merely stop and inconvenience the innocent, the unskilled and the harmless.

The dedicated find a way around the technology and get their message through. Shutting down Twitter will piss off those on Twitter and matter not a whit to those using the Internet to organize both for the positive and for the negative. A quick look at tweets discussing organizing to clean up after the riots, to help those affected by them will prove that it’s not only not Twitter’s fault, but that shutting it down will do more harm than good.

It’s particularly funny, Chris and others point out, that the UK government was calling for web controls to combat rioter organizing just a days after the UK government’s own telecoms regulator, Ofcom, said that it was impossible for Copyright reasons to do that and which noted well that,

To be successful, any process also needs to acknowledge and seek to address concerns from citizens and legitimate users, for example that site blocking could ultimately have an adverse impact on privacy and freedom of expression.

Amen.