Inside Sukey the anti-kettling mobile app


The Guardian's Patrick Kingsley has a great look at the story behind Sukey, a networked tool that helps protestors in London avoid police "kettles" (when police illegally corral protestors, passers-by and residents into a small area and detain them for hours without access to food, toilets, or medicine). Sukey was used for the first time on Saturday's protests against anti-cuts march in London, and for the first time in recent history, protestors avoided kettling (their counterparts in Manchester and Edinburgh -- who don't have Sukey yet -- weren't so lucky).

I keep trying to put myself in the cops' shoes and imagining what I would do to defeat Sukey. I think throwing a lot more cops at the kettle (to make it harder to escape the cordon as it tightens) would go some way toward this, and of course, they could try to shut down mobile connectivity and/or jam WiFi in central London, but I don't think that the public would be too happy about that. They could try to inject misinformation into the system (the recent revelations about large numbers of paid provocateurs in British protest movements certainly makes this plausible), which would probably spark some countermeasures from its creators.

Mostly, I suspect they're going to try to lean on the kids who make and use Sukey, and also try to get their ISP shut down. They may even find some trumped-up charge to use ("Reporting the position of a police officer" could be "obstructing justice," with enough imagination) against anyone caught reporting or accessing Sukey. It probably won't hold up in court, but it's probably got limited efficacy as a shakedown/intimidation tactic.

What I really wonder is if the cops will ever use Sukey's built-in facility for allowing law enforcement to communicate their goals to protestors and vice-versa.

Sam Carlisle, 23, an electronics engineer who graduated from Durham, became politicised after his girlfriend was trampled in a horse-charge at the protest on 24 November. Outraged, he decided to offer his exceptional technical skills to the UCL occupation, where he met Gaus. To differentiate between the two Sams, other occupiers christened them "Sam the techie" (Carlisle), and "Techie Sam" (Gaus). Physically, the pair are chalk-and-cheese - Carlisle is pale and stocky; Gaus dark-haired and tall - but intellectually they seem united. The night before the 9 December protest, both independently came up with the same idea: a live, online map that could show people at home where protest troublespots were located.

"I came to Sam on the eighth and I said: 'I've got this great idea,'" says Gaus. "And then he showed me this flow-chart with exactly the same plan."

The map was up and running for the protest the next day, prompting excited praise from Guardian science writer Ben Goldacre and backhanded compliments from American security analysts. But though the map was an innovative development, because there was no way of quickly communicating what it showed to people on the ground, it didn't fulfil the Sams' ultimate goal: to help protesters avoid kettles.

Inside the anti-kettling HQ

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  1. One highly effective way to stop the police from using horse charges is pikes.

    Unfortunately, that will only mean they will start using other ways of hurting protestors.

  2. Sukey is one part of the solution, but it needs Serval Batphone to prevent the cutting the internet or mobile infrastructure tactic.

    ServalBatPhone Distributed Numbering Architecture allows people in isolated/ temporary networks to use their existing phone numbers.

    To hear how this would apply to the current Egypt situation, click here.

    Heard about this at Linux.conf.au last week- pretty exciting stuff!

  3. I read the guardian article and the linked “security force” article, with this interesting bit at the end of it.

    “First Amendment and net neutrality issues being what they are, there isn’t much law enforcement can do…”

    Good luck with the net neutrality guys, would this app be NSFC (not safe for canada)?

  4. Rather pointless app when the network can be:

    a) Easily monitored and people easily ID’d by their phone.

    b) The network can be unplugged and/or made to work really slowly.

    A none tech solution is required…

    1. The people who built Sucky thought of that. There’s security built into the system. And of course, if you’re caught in a kettle, the cops can find out who you are anyway.

      I think it’s brilliant. The kids these days!

  5. Cory, I found the emphasis on the human scale and dimension of protest that you brought to your novel “FTW” was one of the strongest elements of your novel.
    Great work

  6. That’s pretty tidy, kudos. I love this “emergent play” thing that’s coming out of smartphone hackery. Would anyone have predicted this — a realtime location-aware hassle-indicating crowdsourced app — before it happened? The future is so damn cool.

    And Kettle Godzilla tees would raise some funds. I’d buy one! :)

  7. There is only one cure to kettling- the police and government learning that people will not tolerate illegal detainment, and those detained will work together and break the cordon, using the minimum amount of force necessary.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see kettling ending due to a weak-willed populace unwilling to exercise their rights.

    If you abdicate your rights that is the same as telling the government you no longer want those rights.

    Or, perhaps it will end when a terrorist with a bomb gets deliberately kettled and kills the whole lot.

  8. I’m pretty sure that a peaceful protest being kettled will have a far stronger impact as far as achieving objectives is concerned than a protest making full use of this app will do.

    To make this work you have to rush around the streets of London with no clear plan of where to go or what you’ll do when you get there. The police will then be constantly on the move trying to keep up and get containment in place. Everyone’s blood will be up, no one will have any idea what is going on. Pretty much every massacre in the history of protests gone bad has been because a group of police (or soldiers, or what ever) get very isolated and surrounded by an agitated crowd and conclude that their only way out is to use superior firepower.

    I’m not saying this app will be responsible for a massacre but we need a new paradigm in protesting, the way things are going it is not going to end well. There is no reason that protesters can’t work with the police to go to a place, make their point and then leave again. It happens all the time, and it has happened on an enormous scale (think of the anti war marches).

    Also which “recent revelations about large numbers of paid provocateurs in British protest movements certainly makes this plausible”. I remember hearing about undercover police within environmentalist groups planning to try and shut down a power station, but that is rather different.

  9. “and for the first time in recent history, protestors avoided kettling”

    In other news they also avoided attacks by saber tooth tigers.

    The story may be technically interesting, but there is no evidence in it that the app actually did anything at all.

  10. Can’t any cop blow down all wireless communication by simply opening the bonnet of a running police car and wrapping the shank of a wire coathanger around one of the ignition wires? RossInDetroit, what do you think?

    Broad-band radio interference doesn’t seem hard to arrange.

  11. “They may even find some trumped-up charge to use (“Reporting the position of a police officer” could be “obstructing justice,” with enough imagination) against anyone caught reporting or accessing Sukey. It probably won’t hold up in court, but it’s probably got limited efficacy as a shakedown/intimidation tactic. ”

    unfortunately something similar is already classed as obstructing justice… the simple act of lashing your headlights at oncoming traffic to warn them of a speed trap ahead of them…

    http://speedtrapahead.org/wordpress/2011/01/06/driver-64-who-flashed-headlights-to-warn-fellow-motorists-of-speed-trap-hauled-to-court-and-fined-for-obstructing-police/

  12. Great idea but it requires a mesh wifi or bluetooth mode for local SMS. When the mobile phone networks are used to arrest activists after the event because they were in a forbidden location or the data and SMS service are taken offline for the duration of the emergency this app becomes less useful.
    The problem is that many mobile phone OS’s need a custom kernel to use mesh drivers. I think the Nokia N900 and Openmoko are the only two phones I can think of that make custom kernels easy.
    Or just use FRS or ham radios with APRS to chat with fellow protesters and avoid infrastructure entirely.

  13. Interesting app. I think what police could do about it would be similar to what happened with Elliot Madison in Pittsburgh during the G-20 in 2009, where he was charged with illegally using Twitter to alert protesters about the location of police (http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2009/11/an_interview_wi.php).
    Anyways could be a useful and effective tool, depending on WiFi connectivity- and due to the increasing amount of information regarding protest meetings, co-ordination and details, it strikes me that the more we use technology to distribute our presence, the more we need to develop responsive technologies that enable us to manage, control and protect our presence. Great post Cory!

  14. Soongtype, that link requires a signin. Is there another version that might be publicly accessible?

  15. I would suggest sending a number of protestors ahead of the main group as scouts, maybe 1-2 intersections up. If it does become clear that a peaceful protest is being surrounded in place for kettling it may reach a time when protestors have to take actions. Scouts should identify the path of least resistance and considerations should be made in regards to rushing it. As Toronto has show a number of riot suited police officers can be deployed in several minutes.

    Now is the time for us to discuss how we will deal with current police tactics such as ‘kettling’.

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