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The Fragility of Internet-Enabled Communication

In the wake of the recent London riots, in the UK, several uncomfortable truths have come to light regarding the security and privacy of messages spoken or otherwise transmitted over technological networks. It has long been known of course that anything sent over the internet or other companion networks is subject to spying and / or interception from any number of sources at any point between the sending server and the recipient. However, periodical events such as this do serve to drive home the point that communicating via technology is always going to be fundamentally different to primitive methods of communication in one respect – however much we secure or encrypt that we utter by technological channels, it is never going to be as potentially private as a whisper to another party in a secluded wood.

The 2011 UK riots were sparked off by unknown causes, that remain unknown. A general seething dissatisfaction with the way things were heading within the country, quite possibly, that resulted in a generally meandering, headless riot that vented spleen at any target, government or civilian that happened to be in their way. The local police force were hard-pressed to handle it; they were utterly unprepared for anything of that nature. However, the actions they have taken in the wake of the riots, are troubling to many.

A company known as Datong plc, has sold some of its technology to civilian police forces for the first time, as a result of the riots. Typically their customers include US and Middle Eastern governments. A strictly classified technology – meaning no government that uses it will permit the details of how it works to be made public – the technology essentially broadcasts an override signal that blankets an area up to 10 square miles with very high frequency white noise, effectively drowning out mobile signals, and losing the phone masts in a sea of white.

The net result is, every mobile phone and wi-fi connection – laptop, body area network, palmtop, and a couple of prosthetic devices that transmit wirelessly – all without exception if they are in the target zone, drop off the grid and cease to connect. If you are in the middle of a conversation, or a call to the emergency services when the signal is activated, you are cut off there and then. In addition, when the technology is used to pulse rather than create a steady signal, instead switching on and off as often as 20 times a second, it does not fully disconnect any user.

Instead what it does do is trigger inbuilt capability in mobile phones to release their unique IMSI and IMEI identity codes, pinging the cell towers with them in a way that the authorities can track. In other words, every cell phone becomes a real-time trace for every person in the area, and can be tracked back to who they are. Fortunately, laptops, palmtops, and prosthetics do not transmit these codes. When it pulses like this, the connection does not drop and conversations / internet access can carry on, at reduced speeds.

It is an interesting take on technology. If your phone is on, but you are not sending a message, the police know your whereabouts at all times, if the system is pulse broadcast – which as a national secret, could be any time, any where. It's enough to make the conspiracy theorists reach for their tinfoil hats, but it does beg the question: Ifthey are doing it, why not roll it out nationwide and turn it over to the public, so everyone can track everyone else, in real-time? That is after all, a staple augmented reality is striving for.

A second, more disturbing development also to come out of the riots, is the saga between the police and the social networking sites. It has come to light since the riots, that there was serious thought given to potentially 'switching off' the Internet during the crisis. Specifically, Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin toyed with shutting down all social networking sites, and blocking national access to these services – any web site that allows one visitor to talk to another, essentially – during the crisis, as the information on them 'could be misleading'.

For those not aware, the UK is a first world nation, part of the developed world. For such a country to give serious thought to shutting off the internet for all its citizens due to riots in a handful of it's cities is appalling. It would be devastating enough to do that now, but as things become increasingly more interconnected, and a growing number of services, including healthcare take increasing advantage of the benefits the internet has to offer, that becomes a truly horrific thought.

As it is, in order to shut down the net in a heavily connected country such as the UK, you are basically talking about unplugging the telecomms infrastructure – no landlines, no mobile phones, no radio. How they could achieve such a feat boggles the mind – it would be horrendously expensive to shut down all communications over an entire country like that, but it would be the only way to be sure all 'social networking' ceased – barring the fact that people actually talk to one another naturally of course.

This is perhaps the greatest single threat to our increasingly interconnected world – the interaction with authority figures who don't understand the technologies they seek to control, just for the sake of control.


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