Londoners Turn to Technology to Stop the Looting

Twitter, Flickr and eBay are all helping clean up the mess in the UK

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The violence in London has gotten pretty bad. Monday was the third straight night of rioting in Britain's capital, as the unrest spread to other major cities like Liverpool and Birmingham. Entire stores are losing their inventory--a Sony warehouse burned to the ground and an Adidias shop looked completely empty after being ransacked--and police so far have been powerless to stop the looting. The number of officers will rise from Monday night's 6,000 to 16,000 on Tuesday, but in the meantime, Londoners are doing their best to tidy up their city. And just as it powered the rioters' mobilization, technology is powering clean up effort as well.

Despite police orders to stay in their homes, scores of London residents started to sweep up the city even as the riots raged. As if it were a rebuttal to the rioters using BlackBerry Messenger to organize attacks, the voluntary clean-up crews took to Twitter to organize themselves. Organizers fired up a new Twitter account, @Riotcleanup, that's gained over 72,000 followers in less than 24-hours and has been alerting volunteers about locations in need of crews. London-based Forbes blogger Parmy Olson compares the attitude to the "Keep Calm and Carry On" era. "The initiative offers locals a chance to confront the powerlessness they may feel about remedying a chaotic situation, and tap into the getting-on-with-it spirit of Londoners made famous by the city’s reaction to the Blitz in World War II," Olson says. "The idea is, throw anything at Britain’s capital and locals will handle it with aplomb and some irreverence."

Meanwhile, others are using technology to limit the scale of the looting and the benefits gleaned by looters. eBay and its Craigslist-like listings site Gumtree have committed to working with police to keep looters from selling stolen goods on their sites. "Our thoughts are with the businesses and communities affected by recent events in London and around the UK," a company spokesperson said in an email. "eBay will cooperate fully with the investigating authorities to identify and remove any listings which are linked to criminal activity."

Police are trying to catch the lotters with closed circuit television footage. By posting pictures of looting suspects on their Flickr page along with instructions for how to turn them in, they're crowdsourcing the identification effort. The so-called "Operation Withern" has the stated mission of "bring[ing] to justice those who have committed violent and criminal acts."

Tech companies helping police quell the unrest also face the ire of anarchists. After agreeing to work with London police to co-operate with an investigation into the riots instigators, BlackBerry became the target of the hacker group Team PoisoN, who broke into BlackBerry's company blog and posted a blackmail message threatening to turn the "angry youths" on company employees, whose names and addresses they claim to have acquired. Threats aside, at least BlackBerry is finally finding out how young people are using their devices.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.