Ethics of Computer Technology in the London Riots


Information Technology is closely associated with computer and communication. Instigating from fiscal 1990, the fields of information technology and communication were combined to form information and communication technology (ICT). This has led to the creation of electric products which are merged devices that can multitask. For example, a cellphone might incorporate both TV and internet access. The age has also seen the device sizes shrinking to what we have today such as the widely produced and equally used laptops and smartphones that ideally perform multiple functions. However, innovative social networking technologies encounter numerous ethical issues.

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​Access and ownership of property

Preceding the London riots, the world was rocked by turbulent times characterized by riots. These led to the over toppling of nation leaders especially in the Arab world, deaths in the hands of police forces, destruction and looting of property as well as severe effects on the nations’ economies. In every aspect of a riot, social networks have been highly used to plan, popularize, and create groups with common interests. This has raised various issues concerning access and ownership of technological devices that are used in the emanating riots (Forestere & Morrison, 1990, p.299). In London, rioting groups were comprised of youths from middle-class income backgrounds with unlimited access to the networks and ownership of gadgets that accessed the websites. For example, the commonly used gadgets include Blackberry phones. Access to Facebook and Twitter was made easy with scores of people either accessing the sites in cyber cafes or via their smartphone applications.

In other riots, Facebook and Twitter have been largely involved in organizing and mobilizing the people to revolt. This was different in the London riots where the rioters used the Blackberry phone messaging application dubbed as the BBM on a large scale instead of the other two widely used networks. Produced by Research in Motion (RIM), Blackberry phones are cheaper than other phones and their applications are also cheap. The phones are common among the youths specifically in various parts of the UK. Due to their cheap price and applications, they are readily accessible in the market thus allowing most youths to own them. This was not the case before given the high costs initially associated with such gadgets. The youths could convey messages to a group of friends detailing which, when, and how to commit the crimes witnessed in the riots (Ingram, 2011, p.1). To address this ethical issue, age restrictions on ownership of such devices should be monitored. Laws regulating the age at which individuals should be allowed to own gadgets with a certain level of software applications should also be formulated.

​Software applications

Before the riots, there was a serious fall in the rate of SMS due to the Blackberry instant messaging application. The application is different from the SMS service because it is free of charge and information is conveyed through the internet. BBM has the application of forming communities within the messaging option. Such communities are used in the exchange of information, ideas, or knowledge about a certain topic which unites the whole group. After the killing of Mark Duggan, social groups were formed on Facebook and Twitter to celebrate him. The BBM application has several advantages over social networking websites. It is highly private with messages only viewed by the sender and the receiver. Therefore, making it hard for law enforcers to trace them unlike Facebook, and tweets that are accessed communally, are free of charge, and allows the sending of messages to many people at once. This feature made Blackberry a desirable phone for the youths committing crimes (Hippel, 2005, p.10). As the riots continued, evidence to show connections of social networks in form of tweets and messages were recorded. Mostly, the evidence was directing youths to locations or giving accounts of what was happening.

The messaging service of the Blackberry phone is encrypted making it unintelligible to outsiders as compared to other messaging services that can easily be monitored. The users of the application are connected through a PIN system that allows only those phones whose PINs have been connected to be intelligible. For users to communicate they must exchange PINs. The incorporation of such software applications to devices like phones has raised ethical issues concerning their use and the safety of those surrounding the users (Ingram, 2011, p.1).

​Use of free speech in ICT applications

In current times, freedom of speech is recognized and highly upheld in democratic states. In the world of ICT, any speech can be used in sending and receiving information. This may facilitate sending and receiving of hate, inciting, and defaming speeches alongside unsolicited mail. This happens without any control or blockage to such messages. ICT is at the forefront in conveying information that results in detrimental effects on the receiver or the society as a whole. Besides, terrorists have used ICT to plan and execute attacks (Hippel, 2005, p.12).

The participants in the London riots exploited this loophole to transmit inciting messages. The leaders of the riots used social networks and messaging services to create and organize youths and direct them to certain locations where crimes were committed. As the riots intensified, the concentration of youths and the location where the looting took place demonstrated a well-organized activity. Evidence in form of text messages and tweets were recorded. These messages and tweets gave details on where looting was to take place or detailed a looting experience that had happened. Although the government may be compelled to prosecute those with the highest responsibility in the transmission of information that orchestrated the riots, it is impossible to exercise large scale control over such information and curtail it from circulating. Current large scale use, advancement, and complexity in ICT renders such endeavors impossible and may even spark other riots if the freedom of speech is curtailed (Forestere & Morrison, 1990, p.301). Another hurdle in such an effort lies with the inability of the government to regulate the privacy of users.

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​Privacy in ICT applications

Research conducted by ETICA to assess the expectations of people in ICT identified privacy and security as the major concerns of users of social networks. Globally, ICT has been keen on developing applications that will guarantee the privacy of a user. Besides, social sites that are perceived to be lacking privacy are shunned by users. As compared to riots in Egypt and Tunisia which used open sites like Facebook and Twitter to publicize their activities, rioters in London preferred to use a more secure and available social site that was present in Blackberry phones that were widely owned by those participating in the riots (Morrant, 2010, p.19).

Blackberry instant messaging application, BBM acted as a perfect tool of choice for the looters in the London riots. The application allows users to transmit messages freely and effectively. Another unique application is the privacy of the information that is transmitted through the application making it more secure and hard to monitor. Messages transmitted via BBM are highly encrypted that makes them incomprehensible to outsiders. The application uses a PIN to connect one device to the other which is a readily shared character that makes it easier than exchanging phone numbers. Thus messages are exchanged between those users who have access to other devices through the PIN. Furthermore, messages are only available to the sender and receiver. The application also allows users to send messages to a group of people easily (Ingram, 2011, p.1). This service suited the looters since their activities were not to be open to the public.

Other devices in the center of the privacy debate include the use of camera surveillance to document the activities of the looters. Several looting incidences were recorded by these devices and various individuals were caught in the act. The producers of Blackberry cannot be coerced into revealing private information regarding the rioters since the law protects individuals’ privacy. On the third day of the rioting, RIM suggested that it would help in the investigations. This was not well received by the rioters who perceived it as the most secure system. Other sources suggested that surrendering private information will incriminate innocent citizens. Increased use of ICT makes control and access to private information easier. Such are the cases of hacking (Forestere & Morrison, 1990, p.302).

​Control of ICT applications

The issue of ICT control by participating organizations stemmed up after the riots. RIM stated that it had no control of the messaging application in Blackberry smartphones. This meant that it could not trace, interrupt or screen messages sent via its creative mail scheme but on the contrary, it has provided some countries perceived as major terrorists’ targets like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates the ability to screen e-mails sent through BBM application. This leaves a big gap in understanding the basics under which firms that provide the software application work (Morrant, 2010, p.19).

The government on the other hand has no control over the companies offering the software due to various binding regulations that pertain to the world of ICT. Due to democratization of the technological inventions individuals or a group of individuals who invent particular software exercise its control due to copyright laws. Instead, various tools and apparatus that were needed earlier can now be easily accessed from equipment. Technological inventions also needed considerable training which is available everywhere today. High barriers that marked the entry point in ICT innovating have been lifted to promote technological growth (Morrant, 2010, p.22). These factors contribute highly to the lack of control of ICT ventures by the government.

Increasing traffic of users and personalization of some applications in ICT have hindered control of applications by parent firms. For instance, RIM experienced high traffic of messages during the riots and therefore could not block messages belonging to some phones or emanating from individuals without comprising the whole application. This factor is detrimental when applications are used to fuel hatred, incite others to action and plan mass criminal activities like those witnessed in London. Lack of control has allowed the applications to be misused by individuals for their interests (Hippel, 2005, p.16). The London youths used to lack control of the BBM messaging application to send inciting messages to friends and direct them to areas where looting was taking place.

​Hacking as a threat to ICT applications

Hacking is the process of breaking into a computer for various reasons. The reasons may range from vengeance, theft, and destruction (Forester and Morison 300). Democratization is the main factor that has encouraged the development of hacking. With increased digital technology and the freedom to engage in innovative activities, individuals can train and develop their software that is used either for the benefit of society or misused for individual gains. Democratization has made innovation easier and accessible to a wide range of people especially young professionals (Morrant, 2010, p.19). Hacking can be used to access private information, destroy stored information, theft, and for threatening purposes.

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During the London riots, RIM’s efforts to disclose private information were met with severe threats of exposure of information belonging to senior employees to the leaders of the riots by the hacking group known as TeaMp0isoN. The group revealed that it could access RIM databases which included their employees’ information that could be fed to the rioters if RIM volunteered information to the police. This may put the lives of its employees in danger for fear of being attacked. The group’s ability to access RIM databases violates the right to privacy. Also, the group can alter, delete, steal, or destroy the information contained in the databases of the company. The democratization of ICT was fuelled by the increasing need for products to be user-oriented but not necessarily manufacturer-oriented. This has allowed users to access what they need by designing it themselves (Hippel 2). Government policy and laws are currently shifting towards encouraging user-centric innovations. Although technological inventions are governed by copyright laws, hacking is present and threatens the privacy of users. The hacking ethical issue raises tensions amongst those who trust technology to store private information.


Forester, T. & Morrison, P. 1990. Computer ethics: cautionary tales and ethical dilemmas in computing. Harvard journal of law & technology, 4(spring issue), pp. 299-305.

Hippel, E. 2005. From Democratizing Innovation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Web.

Ingram, M. 2011. Network effects: Social media’s role in the London riots. Web.

Morrant, D. 2010. The magazine of the European innovation exchange. 2010. Ethical issues of emerging ICT applications, 3, pp.2-23. Web.

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