Texting the Riot Act

In a way, we shouldn’t be surprised at some of the bonkers comments that ministers and members of Parliament are making about mobile phones, social media and the role of the inter-web tubes in the recent unpleasantness in London and some of our other deprived, inner-city areas such as Gloucester. Remember, not only do these people not really understand how any of the technology works, they have no technical or scientific training to help them think any of their ideas through. So an MP will say that RIM should stop looters from communicating with each other, not realising that not only is there no practical way of doing this, but that there is no conceivable reason as to why we should even want to try. We WANT looters to communicate via BBM, Twitter and text, thus providing an excellent forensic trail.

I suspect that some of the comments about social media, masks and so forth all derive from the same confusion about what identity is and what it should be in an online society. The government has no strategy for this, no guiding principles. And I’m convinced that their knee-jerk comments about these issues are wrong. Here’s why. We are all bored with seeing that same old cartoon over and over again: (in cyberspace no one knows you’re a dog). Well, yes. But as I’ve consistently pointed out since the earliest days of the inter web:

In cyberspace, no-one know youre a dog but on the other hand no-one knows you’re with the FBI either.

[From Journal of Internet Banking and Commerce]

On balance, do you want criminals to coordinate their activities using post-it notes, invisible ink and secret signs or do you want them to record all of their activities electronically? Personally, I’m for the latter.

A new Google Group called “London Riots Facial Recognition” has appeared online, in the wake of the riots that rocked the U.K. capital over the weekend. The group’s goal is to use facial recognition technologies to identify the looters who appear in online photos.

[From Google Group Members to Use Facial Recognition to Identify London Rioters | TechCrunch]

I heard somebody on the radio earlier on (I don’t remember who it was) saying that Facebook should find ways to stop looters from uploading pictures of their trophies. Like this one.


I disagree! Surely a rational policy would be to exploit the advances in face recognition, pattern matching and network analysis to encourage the looters (a great many of whom are, frankly, not the sharpest tools in the box) to post as much of this stuff is possible to make their automated detection as easy as possible.

There’s a similar argument about the physical world. I think I heard one of the MPs in the Commons debate earlier on say that it’s illegal for people to wear masks in public for the purpose of concealing their identity and therefore the police should have been arresting looters in masks. But this would require huge police manpower and will be very difficult to execute. A much better idea would be for plainclothes policeman to join the crowds wearing masks themselves and capture as much intelligence as possible so that they can work towards arresting the ringleaders instead of expending effort on arresting teenage girls for stealing six bottles of nail polish. A simple scheme would be to carry a can of spray paint and put a mark on the back of ringleaders, a more complex one might be to shine a laser pointer on them to guide in missiles fired by drones.

Anyway, there’s a general problem with technology and the government’s policies and responses. And there are all sorts of reasons: educational standards, funding for research etc etc. I know many people disagree with me, but I think in the British environment there is another factor: class.

Mr Cameron responds that many of the rioters used closed networks, such as Blackberry, to organise their activities and this has to be looked at.

[From BBC News – MPs debate riots]

David Cameron (Eton, Oxford, PPE), Theresa May (grammar school, Oxford, Geography) and George Osborne (St. Pauls, Oxford, History) may not be the best people to comment on the use of BBM, Twitter or Facebook since I’m sure they have no picture of how these work and how they may be “controlled”. I’m not being anti-public school or anti-Oxbridge: I would welcome more public school, Oxbridge scientists into positions of power. The most senior civil servant I have ever met (who was responsible for a huge government programme based on IT) had read English at Oxbridge and hadn’t got a clue about the project. He began one meeting by saying “I don’t understand the technology”. We should have got up and walked out at that point, but of course we didn’t.

PM announces crackdown on gangs and social media

[From Telegraph.co.uk – Telegraph online, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph – Telegraph]

What on Earth is he talking about? A “crackdown” on social media??? This makes no sense – it’s like saying he’s going to have a crackdown on printing or telephones. This something that bothers me about MPs, ministers and and civil servants lacking the mental models necessary to make sense of the technology. I can’t write Objective-C code or debug a Java middle at but I can understand what the twitter client on my mobile phone is doing because I have the framework of understanding. Many years ago CP Snow rather famously said that you couldn’t be a gentleman without understanding the 2nd law of thermodynamics (which is that there is no such thing as a free lunch, essentially). Perhaps updated version of this might be that you shouldn’t be entitled to call yourself a gentleman unless you understand the difference between TCP and IP, or something like that.

As delivered in 1959, Snow’s Rede Lectures specifically condemned the British educational system… This in practice deprived British elites (in politics, administration, and industry) of adequate preparation to manage the modern scientific world.

[From C. P. Snow – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]

Absolutely nothing has changed.


In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes