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How technology is affecting County Lines drug dealing

Creative uses of new technologies are enabling county lines gangs to stay one step ahead of law enforcement.

Crest Advisory and Forensic Analytics have just published the latest bulletin from their research project on the role of technology in ‘county lines’ - the name given to drug dealing where urban gangs or organised crime groups (OCGs) move drugs around the country, usually from cities to smaller towns and rural areas. Everyone knows that mobile communications are an essential feature of county drug lines, yet the researchers contend that the role of technology as a factor which has driven the growth of county lines has often been overlooked.

Tech arms race

The research team found that gang members and police officers both used the same language in describing the use of technology in county lines as ‘an arms race’. Criminal line operators know that law enforcement agencies possess superior resources, so they rely on creative uses of new technologies to stay a step or two ahead. The goal for the police is to gain a competitive advantage by bucking this trend and getting ahead of the gangs.

The latest report highlights five key developments in mobile tech and describes their impact on county lines.

5G

Everyone knows that 5G is the fifth – and fastest – generation of wireless technology but how does its implementation affect the county lines arms race? The main issue is that the new generation of technology is subject to new government licences and police forces are lobbying hard to ensure that these licences including unambiguous conditions that hardware and network providers should co-operate with law enforcement services.

Ai bots

We already know that young people are groomed into being exploited in county lines via social media. Groomers entice young people to engage with their accounts by posting content giving a false idea of the benefits of a gangster lifestyle; cash, expensive watches, supercars, opportunities for young people to make money. Young people are moved into end-to-end encrypted online messaging spaces where their exploitation is sealed. The researchers speculate that gangs may start to make use of artificial intelligence (Ai) to automate this grooming process, scraping TikTok, Instagram and other sites popular with young people to target vulnerable individuals.

Automated supply chains

The research team also explores whether gangs will look to follow the lead of Amazon and other online retailers by automating drug storage (via lockers) and delivery via drones. We already know that prisons have had to respond to the increase use of drones to deliver drugs and mobile phones.

Social media

Many readers will already be aware that many organised crime groups use end-to-end encrypted messaging apps across a wide range of criminal activity including extremism, child sexual abuse and youth violence - as well as county lines drugs gangs and child criminal exploitation. The choice of app changes rapidly in an attempt to keep one step ahead of law enforcement. Researchers found that “Telegram” has overtaken WhatsApp as gangs’ app of choice for end-to-end encryption.

The use of end-to-end encrypted platforms poses problems for police and other agencies because it is harder for them to access the content of messages. But it is not a complete roadblock. There are still ways of monitoring the use of such apps by tracking the location of internet connections. Again, legislation and regulation of social media platforms is likely to be a critical issue with the Online Safety Bill currently delayed in its passage through parliament.

Devolved social media

The last issue raised by the research team is the advent of decentralised messaging networks as a means of secure communication. Under centralised systems, which are used by most mainstream messaging platforms, a central server or servers operate the network. Decentralised systems (examples provided by researchers include Mastodon and Urbit) run on a peer-to-peer basis, meaning that each user's device becomes part of the server network. The practical significance of this is that there is no single point of oversight so law enforcement agencies do not have a clear channel through which to request data records. This is reminiscent of how some of the original illegal downloading and sharing of music and movies operated.

The research teams point out that these decentralised systems are already in use by political extremists in the United States to communicate with each other and organise themselves. It means they are less exposed to proactive monitoring by federal law enforcement agencies and less likely to be reported to the authorities than if they used sites hosted by centralised tech companies.

Conclusion

Researchers conclude by emphasising possibly the most important factor in the evidence base about drug markets – that they are one of the most adaptable forms of criminal behaviour and that the digital arms race is bound to continue over the coming years.

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