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The police v. the networked looter: the starfish and the spider?

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Criminologists are often impressed by the similarities between the police and gangs; violent masculine cultures, specific clothes and hair styles that indicate and contribute to group identity, hierarchies, and of course the use of force. Those who point out the similarities usually go on to point out the differences; the police are more numerous than any one gang, better armed and better (or at least more formally) organised. The looting and mayhem in London, and other large English cities early in August this year seems to suggest another difference, the difference between a network and hierarchy.

Although a star fish and spider may appear to be very similar in their morphology, that similarity is deceptive. A spider has many limbs but a single centralised control system. That centralised control system enables it to engage in sophisticated behaviour; spinning a web to catch prey. The starfish by contrast is not so sophisticated, but it is far more robust. A spider that suffers damage to the central core will die. A starfish can regenerate from a single limb.

This conceit (as my Elizabethan poetry professors would have termed it) is the titular metaphor of a book by Orif Brafman and Rod Beckstrom both graduates of the Stanford M.B.A. Unsurprisingly theirs is not the only work which contrasts phenomena characterised by decentralised self organising units with phenomena characterised by ponderous hierarchies. It is conventional entrepreneurial wisdombelief that network organisations are faster and more robust than those with larger resources but centralised control.

One of the good reasons for thinking that this might generally be true was suggested by Frederick Hayeck. While an organisation might have the resources to assemble more information than an individual a hierarchical organisation there comes a point at which the capacity of an organisation to process the information quickly and accurately is exceeded. In most hierarchical organisations the person who must make a decision that is at all out the ordinary does not have the time or expertise to collect or understand all the information needed to make the decision. The implication of Hayeck’s analysis is that the decision should be moved to where the information is situated transforming the hierarchy into a network.

Contemporary United States military doctrine is premised on this theory. Units engaged with the enemy communicate real time data such as video feed directly to each other, and co-operate in attacks according to protocols referred to as rules of engagement. Where a decision outside the protocols is required then combat units communicate directly with high ranking officers who are able to make the decision immediately. For example a tank, a surveillance drone (whose operator might be in the US), a helicopter and an infantry unit might all work together on a single occasion, with real time support from intelligence and logistics. Although military cultures are traditionally hierarchical they may adopt a network organisation for operational reasons.

I am one of those who are largely convinced that networks work better than hierarchies in most situations. So why am I sceptical of the narrative emerging from the English Summer riots that the police were outmanoeuvred by self organising looters who had no central leadership but who made better use of telecommunications technology.

A good example of this narrative is an article on TechCrunch titled “Absolute explosion” — How BlackBerry BBM fed the riots, says contact. In a previous article the author claimed that the Blackberry Messenger service, rather than visible social networks such as Twitter, enabled looters to co-ordinate because creates a “‘shadow social network‘ which is invisible to Police snooping”. This claim seems to be exaggerated. Blackberry Messenger makes use of a unique PIN which identifies a particular sending device, and cannot (easily) be reset by the user but can be re-set by RIM/Blackberry. The PIN can be used to identify one user to another, you can send someone a message if you know that person’s PIN. The PIN of a device is used in encrypting the message. Blackberry state that they use symmetric encryption. In other words when Blackberry user sends a message to another user the phone encrypts his message using his PIN and sends it to the Blackberry server. Blackberry decrypts and re-encrypts and sends it to the receiving user. In other words Blackberry have the keys and could decrypt any message for the police. But it is difficult to believe that large metropolitan forces like the London Met did not have a single underground officer or informant who received the BB messages.

The article itself, despite the headline, suggests a more complex dynamic “an organised gang deciding via word of mouth to target a shop to rob, organising it with throwaway phones and getting out the word on BBM straight away, effectively using a riot as a smokescreen to cover their tracks, ‘pinging the kids’ to come down and create confusion for the police as they melt away into night”.

Is the dynamic that resulted purely the result of technology enabling ‘the kids’ to form a flashmob? BBM technology isn’t that new, so why hasn’t this happened before? The key factor seems to be the willingness of ‘the kids’ to create confusion for the police. There are a wide range of explanations for why sufficient numbers of urban English youth are willing to break the law ranging from comments on the Daily Mail readers fulminating that about a culture of entitlement created by welfare, through Cameron’s non-explanation of ‘pure criminality’ to Laurie Penny’s passionate blogpost blogpost:
“People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.”

Why would the young people engage in criminal activity? That is an important question that is going to be debated in England and globally for some time to come. There is another less important why, which is why now, and in this way? These are the questions that suggest a link with technology but not in the way that the press has suggested.

The ‘copycat’ behaviour of rioters that extended, prolonged and changed what seems to have been an expression of anger by a very specific community in a restricted locality. Copycat behaviour was required that potential rioters believe that they could engage in vandalism without immediate or effective retaliation by the police. Potential rioters did not get that from belief from cryptic calls to action but from a far older technology; television. It was through television that young people could observe the police holding back while masked people broke shop windows, seized goods and ran away. It was through television that young people could observe that the police were either absent, slow to respond, and followed a rigid protocol. Whatever the motive(s) in those who engaged in looting on the Monday and Tuesday the one factor that was new in their situations was that they had been able to watch on television how the police public order units had behaved in response. It was clear to anyone watching the footage that it would be relatively easy for a group of people to emulate the behaviour of the looters without facing a risk of immediate capture. It was through television that potential rioters they could form the perception that the trend of law enforcement relying on surveillance camera footage for evidence could be thwarted by masks and hoodies. (This perception is currently being tested in courts across England.)

The English police forces have access to many more ways of gathering information than the (potential) looters. They can access many of the government owned CCTV camera’s that infest English cities, they could use surveillance helicopters using infra red, and they could call on members of the public to alert them to any suspicious activity, and even stream footage from webcams and cellphones. A police force intent on arresting criminals is necessarily reactive. But a police force operating in the network mode could, disperse its units and then, using multiple sources of information rapidly concentrate units where the information indicates trouble is beginning to occur. Superior communication, superior transport, use of mobile barriers and tactical discipline would allow units to seal off streets, both to prevent access to certain areas and to effect arrests.

So why didn’t the police respond in that way?

At the time of the Tottenham riot the police were facing widespread erosion of their political capital. Scandals about the hiring of former News International staff to advise on media relations close to the time when News International was under investigation for phone hacking, and bribing police officers to reveal information were only the latest. Reports in the Guardian had shown how the police had been using tax payers resources to engage in entrapment of environmental groups. The dubious tactic of “kettling” students protesting the doubling and redoubling of university fees pitted the police against law abiding citizens. Before these blows to their public image the police had already been criticised by the press for the mistaken shooting of a terror suspect. In its response to protests, as well as resignations of top officers over the News International scandal the police forces have been taking a great deal of the political heat directed at the Cameron administration. That same administration is however intent on cutting the budgets of the police forces, and re-structuring them so that elected police officials make decisions at a local level. The police could not afford another public relations scandal resulting from the use of force. The Guardian reports the concerns of a an individual policeman.
“At the briefing many of my officers wanted cast-iron guarantees that no individual officers would be suspended and prosecuted if we use force and a rioter became seriously injured. This was not forthcoming….Many people are becoming very angry that we refuse to move our lines and baton charge the rioters. I have run around like a blue arsed fly trying to understand why we are being ordered to stay static; the only explanation I can find is that Gold Command are concerned about the sensitivity of the target group.”

In a reversal of the usual order of things it was the police that suggested restraint while the politicians called for greater force. Hugh Orde suggested that the use of water cannons and baton rounds was not advisable, while politicians spoke of getting tough. When drafting large numbers of personnel onto the streets eventually stemmed the looting the police were adamant that their response was decided on police leadership, and took politicians to task for claiming the credit. The English public perceived the police handling of the crisis as better than the politicians. The Cameron administration was forced to back off, if only temporarily. The police subsequently revealed that they did access some of the Blackberry messagesand used the information to prevent looting at London Olympic venues.

So is this a story about new technology, and agile networks versus rigid hierarchies, or is it another story, about the older medium of television, and the role in shaping public perception, and how politicians and bureaucracies interact with television?