From the September 2011 issue of American Agent & Broker • Subscribe!

A Clockwork BlackBerry

In 1963, Anthony Burgess brilliantly created a British working-class dystopia in his novel, "A Clockwork Orange." The book’s title is a nod to an old Cockney phrase, "as queer as a clockwork orange," something that looks normal on the outside but with sinister inner workings—kind of like that friendly smartphone in your hand right now.

A few years ago, social networking was something our teenaged kids did for LOLs. Since then, it has been adopted, embraced and codified by the business world (who would have thought that university degree programs and full-time positions for social media managers would exist?). And now, as technology inevitably does, it is evolving—or devolving—into something with more nefarious applications.

Near the beginning of summer, I blogged about a disturbing trend that had begun cropping up in urban areas: organized robberies, looting and attacks by "flash mobs" that converged en masse at a location after being alerted via Twitter, Facebook and smartphone texting. The early reports mostly flew under the radar of media attention, and I felt somewhat paranoid for pointing out the trend. But to me it felt like the evil twin of the Twitter activity that helped spur the "Arab Spring" Middle East uprisings.

Last month the streets of London exploded in a 4-day orgy of violence that yielded (at press time) insured losses of $328 million and much more in the way of soul-searching about how and why it happened. British authorities determined that much of the coordination of the rioting and looting took place through BlackBerry Messenger, a free, instant and more covert method than Twitter. Later in the month, California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit took the preemptive stop of shutting down its cellphone service in an attempt to foil an organized protest that it feared would turn violent.

It doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict that the recent use of new technology in nefarious activities is just the tip of the iceberg. Continuing high unemployment, a growing underclass, governments going broke and elected officials who clearly don’t give a damn—on both sides of the pond—is a recipe for disaster. Combine these elements with disenfranchised young people with no hope and cheap, sophisticated communication technology and you have a lethal mix that will make 1969’s Days of Rage look like Woodstock.

Just as more sophisticated risk management and ERM evolve to help stave off losses, new threats tied to new technology are evolving, too. What will business interruption cover in the London riots? What about possible lawsuits against law enforcement? Was BART right to have interrupted cell phone service in fear of a riot? Did they violate First Amendment rights by doing so? What will you tell your customers about the possibility of something happening in their hometowns?

Stay tuned, droogie. We’re living in strange days, indeed.

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