When IT Meets Politics

Aug 26 2011   11:22AM GMT

Internet censorship trial brings London to a halt?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo


This morning I thought my router had failed set about installing the new one I bought some time ago – only to run into “error 651“. Only then did I think to use the Vodafone broadband on my netbook to look up the BT broadband service status – a found their was massive outage across most of London. I reconnected my old router and within minutes the service was back. But what caused such a widespread outage? An exchange flooding or …. ?

Unless we have divine intervention, alias “rain stops play”, this week-end will see whether arresting 10% of those involved in last weeks riots, detaining most of them and giving draconian sentances to those found guilty of trying to organise copy-cat riots over insecure social networks has worked. If not our current mix of semi-nationalised professional policing and legal ritual may finally succumb to the pressures for change and embrace genuine community/partnership policing.  

It cannot survive (any more than the Coalition can do so) if suburban and out-of-town shopping centres are torched and trashed while the police are busy protecting Notting Hill and the City Centres. So what can technology do to address the long-standing problems it has helped bring to a head?   


I have been intrigued by the lack of insight behind recent exchanges over the FIPR alerts lists, from suggestions for “getting hold of some of the riot data for modelling purposes” to horror at the idea of interfering with the freedom of the Internet. I had forgotten just how out of touch the internetties in their cyber-ghettoes can become – while thinking they are leading us into a brave new world. 

Not long after the 1981 Brixton Riot  I was shown a system produced by a retired naval officer to apply military IT “solutions” to the policing of civilian hot spots. He had been involved with Nato’s battlefield prediction simulations and was running one of the ITECs (probably the most successful exercise for turning unemployable NEETs from troubled backgrounds into well-paid electronics and IT technicians – now airbrushed out of history, along with City and Guilds 726, after they fell victim to Moorfoot initiativitis and its habit of throwing good money after bad, rather than measuring placement into paid work and reinforcing success).

He used the Notting Hill Carnival as his “battlefield”, mixing what his trainees were telling him with what he was obtaining from front line police officers, to produce  models that would predict when and where trouble was likely to arise and the resources that would be needed to handle it. I recollect him saying that the biggest single difference was that he could not make full use of communications traffic analysis in his predictions, because only the police and emergency services had radios. Therefore he had only the locations and volumes from their transmissions plus what was being recorded in the control rooms. Even so, he could demonstrate the ability to cut 10 – 15 minutes off response times. 

I do not know how successful he was in overcoming police resistance at the top (senior police officers were still aghast at the idea of treating a riot or demonstration as a potential battlefield and taking robust pre-emptive action). That changed when the police establishment was  caught between the miners’ flying pickets and the threat that the government would use the army if they could not cope. The legacy of that conflict (and its influence on the policing policies of the last government) is, however, one of the many reasons for the initially hesitant police response last week.

Since 1981 the potential rioters and looters have acquired communications tools as sophisticated as anything on a modern battlefield. They have also practiced their strategies and tactics through several generations of on-line games – acquiring a depth of common understanding akin that of Nelson’s band of brothers, who practiced battle tactics with the cutlery whenever they dined together.

The on-line, real-time analysis of fixed and mobile communications data and its redistribution, to enable front-line officers to “see” on their blackberry screens how the rioters are redeploying, should be one of the tools for helping restore law and order – even if they can only read the rioters command and control “chatter” on the systems they have seized from those taken into custody.

I strongly suspect, however, that such modelling will have much less overall impact than the reform of drawn out procedures, dictated by PACE and RIPA, for an age of instant communications. I would, however, like to see the twittering classes discussing how the technology can be used to help, and not just saying what cannot be done.

I would also like to see a lot more work on the resilience of our fragile broadband systems. I really did not like the feeling this morning that the Internet had been taken down as part of the preparations to prevent a week-end of rioting and arson.   


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