The government has warned that it is to use its spies to hunt down riot ringleaders who employed encrypted messages on their BlackBerry smartphones to avoid detection.

Experts at the Cheltenham’s GCHQ listening station have combined with Scotland Yard to hunt down the criminals suspected of masterminding some of the worst looting.

The spies do face difficulties intercepting the instant and virtually untraceable messages sent via BlackBerry Messenger, known as BBM, to private networks of one or more people.

But Research in Motion, the firm behind the BlackBerry, said it would

‘engage with the authorities’ – a move that brought threats from hackers

against the company.

RIM could potentially make available to the police a user’s name, location, number of messages sent and who those

messages were sent to at what time.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh, of the Met, said: ‘A

lot of people who are seeing these BlackBerry messages are forwarding

them to the police.’

Although under normal circumstances

RIM would not be able to release private information about its users

without a warrant, an exception is made in the UK Data Protection Act

where that information could help the police prevent a crime.

Unlike social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, messages sent through BBM cannot be traced back to the sender.

They are also encrypted, adding to the handset’s popularity among security-conscious business chiefs and criminals alike.

The Home Office has pinpointed ‘several hundred’ ringleaders identified by police intelligence staff.

“Many of these people are part of organised criminal gangs,”  an official told the Daily Mail.

“We know who they are and we can see who else they are talking to. We are using all the resources at our disposal. This is a national priority.”

Police technical experts may also be able to recover incriminating information from the mobile phones – even the BlackBerrys – of suspects.

This could include a record of their messages as well as photographs and internet searches. It is also possible undercover agents may have been able to infiltrate message networks.