LONDON: The security service MI5 and the electronic interception centre GCHQ have been asked by the government to join the hunt for people who organised last week’s riots, the Guardian has learnt.
The agencies, the bulk of whose work normally involves catching terrorists inspired by al-Qaeda, are helping the effort to catch people who used social messaging, especially BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), to mobilise looters.
A key difficulty for law enforcers last week was cracking the high level of encryption on the BBM system. BBM is a pin-protected instant message system only accessible to BlackBerry users.
MI5 and GCHQ will also help the effort to try to get ahead of any further organisation of disturbances. They have a statutory right to target criminals or those suspected of being involved in crime, officials have said.
Police struggled to access the BBM network last week, though some who received messages planning violence were so outraged they passed them on to law enforcement agencies.
GCHQ’s computers and listening devices can pick up audio messages and BBM communications. MI5 and the police can identify the owners with the aid of mobile companies and internet service providers.
The agencies can intercept electronic and phone messages, identify where they have been sent from and their destination. That allows other investigations to take place and other efforts to develop intelligence.
In his speech on Monday, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, made no mention of his threatened clampdown on social media.
Last week, in the House of Commons emergency debate, he said: ”We need a major piece of work to make sure that the police have all the technological capabilities they need to hunt down and beat the criminals.”
For law enforcement, the difficulty with BBM is that it boasts semi-private – and instant – access to a network of like-minded users. And unlike Twitter or Facebook, many messages are untraceable by the authorities.