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County Lines: Could use of burner phones end within 12 months?

New research suggests that the use of burner phones by County Lines members could end very suddenly as cheaper and encrypted smart phones come onto the market.

The research warns that if County Line gang members start using cheap smartphones with end-to-end encryption many of the investigative approaches which police forces currently rely on “will become redundant almost overnight.”

The study by Forensic Analytics and Crest Advisory suggests that the County Lines ‘business model’ has been around for a lot longer than officially acknowledged and dates back to a time shortly after forces used covert officer test purchasing tactics and raiding crack houses to deal with the open market in crack cocaine and heroin use in the 1990s.

This pushed drug dealers towards using burner phones to deliver the drugs supply on the back of the mass market proliferation of mobile phones with phone ownership increasing from 46 per cent to 73 per cent of the population in just one year in the UK.

The research warns: “The operators of county lines are reluctant to trust smartphones. However, the evidence suggests that as mobile technology develops, opportunities to use web-based tools to communicate with users will increase. We cannot assume this will be a gradual process. Just as ownership of mobile phones in the UK increased from 46% to 73% in one year, it’s possible that the abandonment of burners could also happen very quickly - enabled by a step change in 5G availability or new hardware performing the same role as the Nokia 3310 20 years ago.

“If that happens, the police forces charged by the Prime Minister and Home Secretary with ‘rolling up’ county lines may face a cliff edge, beyond which many of the investigative approaches they currently rely on will become redundant almost overnight.”

The researchers were told by young people involved in county lines that burners remain central to operations partly because heroin and crack users are often unable to afford smartphones.

This is now changing the research suggests. Affordable pays as you go  (PAYG) handsets with social media apps and end-to-end encryption are available from High Street and web-based retailers for under £35.

One police officer told the researchers:

“Users aren't necessarily going to be those chaotic users especially when you look at more of a recreational drug. So the market for selling drugs to those individuals, those customers is going to be slightly different. And that's probably why we will be looking more at smartphones…They're all going to have end-to-end encryption devices. So you could have something set up on say WhatsApp, and I say WhatsApp because we see it quite a lot, messaging between groups to say, ‘right, okay, who wants what?' We won't get to know about that.”

Although currently County Line gangs members typically carry two phones  -  a burner and a smartphone, the use of encrypted social media apps and even gaming platforms to recruit new drug couriers is also a threat to law enforcement infiltration tactics, the research warns.

One officers said:

Our juveniles or young people that are recruited through Snapchat, in particular… that's definitely a theme at the moment. And my way of being able to interrogate that and map that is  non existent really.

“Our actual intelligence picture nationally is pretty rubbish when it comes to online. And social media is pretty appalling, if I'm honest. But then we don't get much support from platforms such as Snapchat and where they're based outside the UK when it comes to requested data we basically get told to do one.”

“Historically, Snapchat is just the worst app to communicate with as a police officer, because they just don't give you anything. It's really, really frustrating. And people know that. So that's why it's so popular..”

Officers interviewed in the study spoke highly of the level of cooperation they received from third parties, including meal delivery and taxi apps, in county lines investigations.

The research found that forces have increased their digital forensic capability to enable officers to download mobile phone data in order to to co-locate two phones, to map movements and attribute dealing activities to individuals higher up the food chain.

It also found that by using production orders, under PACE officers can access up to seven days of data including SMS and Voicemail, although mobile networks differ in terms of the data they can supply. Accessing information on suspects obtaining e-voucher top ups for devices is also a useful source of information enabling them to use CCTV evidence.

The use of cell cite analysis software to pinpoint individual phone use is also crucial to a lot of County Lines investigations the research found. .

Those involved in county lines gangs were aware that policing remained reactive - and understood how tactics had evolved. Two young interviewees mentioned cell-site analysis saying, “That’s their whole case innit, cell site.”

Others described how law enforcement could track their location or identify bulk messages being sent.

One young person currently active in county lines explained that he will now often send the deal line in the opposite direction to the drugs with a runner in order to avoid police being able to locate him using cell site data.

Other young people with direct experience of county lines talked openly about the police’s reliance on Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) to identify vehicles used by line operators.

One officer told researchers that a simple tactics such as changing the line name can “slow down our response”. He said: “It might take us a few days to work out the new number. And then we just have to
work out that continuity between the old one and the new one and then continue the investigation.”

But the researchers warn that the emergence of 5G technology and cheaper smart phones are the major threat to police tactics.

The report concludes: “Just as the use of test purchase and crack house raids pushed gangs towards the use of burner phones to deliver drugs, recent successes using cell-site analysis to disrupt county lines will inevitably push gangs towards new tactics such as end-to-end encrypted messaging.”

The full report is available here: www.forensicanalytics.co.uk/running-out-of-credit-mobile-phone-tech-and-the-birth-of-county-lines/

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