Five things you need to know about new tech and county lines

Authors: Joe Caluori | Ellen Kirk | Beth Mooney


Friday 29 July 2022


PROJECT: Cutting the Head off the Snake – Disrupting County Lines
PREVIOUS LONG READ: Running out of credit: Mobile phone tech and the birth of county lines
 

Crest Advisory and Forensic Analytics are collaborating on a 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. Mobile communications are an essential feature of county drug lines, yet the role of technology as a causal factor in the growth of county lines has often been neglected in research and commentary.

In our first article we considered the historical relationship between mobile phone technology and the rapid spread of county lines. We found that the exploitation of young people in county lines in a range of roles was enabled by an explosion in mobile phone ownership, from 46% of the UK population in 1999 to 73% in 2000. Although gangs have used new technologies such as social media to groom young people, they remain wedded to the use of ‘burners’, basic pay-as-you-go handsets with no contract that are easily discarded. Gang leaders know the police use cell-site analysis, tracking phone locations and calls through data, to catch and convict runners and dealers who use burners, but to them, it is an acceptable loss. A personal smartphone falling into police hands is another matter entirely.


Gang members and police officers both used the same language in interviews conducted for this project, 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.


In this article we examine five key developments in mobile tech and ask what impact they may have on county lines, drawing on interviews with tech industry insiders, police officers and young people who have had direct experience of county lines.



A rapid shift to 5G creates vulnerabilities in the police response

 

‘5G’ is the fifth generation of wireless technology - and heralds a profound change in the way that people access information and communicate on the go. It’s the successor to 2G (which enabled data services such as texting), 3G (launched smartphones) and 4G (faster browsing, streaming music and videos). 5G offers even faster browsing speeds, fewer streaming delays and greater capacity, allowing many devices to gain full access even in densely populated areas. The four major UK mobile networks have already rolled out 5G devices. The communications regulator, Ofcom, estimates that about half of the UK has 5G coverage; the number of base stations, which send and receive wireless signals, is believed to have doubled in 2021.


Previous generations of mobile network technology have an endpoint. The UK Government has announced that 3G will be completely ‘turned off’ in 2033 and networks are in the process of doing just that. In time, 2G will also be phased out. This is why it is so important that licensing conditions for 5G are in place to ensure that network providers cooperate with police and other agencies when they need to access digital information to tackle county lines gangs. A law enforcement expert emphasised the point: "From a licensing point of view, the operator has to have a licence in the country in which they operate. And so the government can put conditions on a licence to say, ‘you therefore need to be able to provide the services for the security of the country’."


But one interviewee raised the possibility that network operators may not maintain a significant UK footprint, with their main headquarters based overseas: “When we move to the standalone architecture, when they've got one core network covering the whole world, where are we going to be making our inquiry? [...] It's probably not going to be in the UK, it's going to be somewhere cheaper to have it. [...] It's going to lose that local connection.”


The launches of 3G and 4G caused problems for policing. A tech industry expert described how “when 3G launched, there was a phase where certain things weren't available to law enforcement, they couldn't do certain things, because the police liaison teams through the phone networks hadn't got to grips with it and therefore they couldn't provide services. When 4G launched exactly the same happened. [...] It takes time to realise and work out how we export that data in a way that we can then also make use of it.”


It is crucial that this doesn’t happen when the switch comes to 5G - and that there is a law enforcement plan for ‘life after burners’ with clear agreements with hardware and network providers. Investigatory tactics targeting drug lines and child criminal exploitation will depend on it.


Artificial intelligence bots offer grooming on an industrial scale

 

In our previous blog, ‘Running out of credit’, we reported on how 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 use of artificial intelligence (Ai) in the grooming process is a natural progression.


The basic components of the technology already exist. One example is GPT-3 - a machine-learning language model which uses data available on the internet to generate human-like text. This kind of Ai is already commonly used in other types of crime, such as fraud, so it may not be a significant leap for use in county lines grooming


We spoke to a Government tech expert who was concerned that Ai allows communications to be targeted at vulnerable people on an automated basis:

“If you're scraping TikTok, and Insta, and all the places where kids live, and you're scraping in an automated way looking for kids who expose themselves in such a way that they might be open to blackmail, and then having some sort of bot or some sort of digital asset that threatens them and says ‘do this one thing for me, and then the picture will be destroyed’, they can do that on a national, even international scale."


An industry tech expert sounded a note of caution: ”There's quite a lot of in-depth planning as to who you'd want to target, how you'd want to interact with them, if you want to automate it for a ‘bot’. That's quite a lot of work. And so my gut feeling is at the moment, that's probably further off rather than near but anything's possible." Indeed, machine learning might have to be used to improve Ai chatbots’ ‘idiolect’ (combining idioms used by young people with local dialects) to convince young people to respond. That could prove to be expensive and time consuming, but it is not insurmountable.


However, the use of Ai in fraud suggests that when victims engage with chatbots they are not performing detailed tests to see if they are interacting with a computer or a human being. It may be that vulnerable young people interacting with these accounts, perhaps late at night, are so disinhibited and in such a state of hyper-arousal that they won’t care to consider whether the chatbot is convincing. Even if the ‘bots’ have a low success rate, contacting vast numbers of young people at once allows groomers to find enough young people quickly, allowing them to expand their criminal operations to new locations at pace. The use of ‘bots’ could also make it more difficult to trace the person behind the algorithm meaning that grooming becomes an almost faceless crime. Law enforcement agencies and the Crown Prosecution Service need to be ready to tackle this problem if it arises.


Interviewees predicted it would be a few more years before the benefits for county line operations of Ai grooming outweighed the costs. Organised crime groups with a rigid hierarchy, such as those in Merseyside, will probably be the first to take advantage, as they can repurpose tech for perpetrating online fraud for use in county lines.


Automated supply chains

 

The automation of logistics systems and supply chains, used by large-scale online retailers, could also be exploited by county lines drug gangs, as a government tech expert told us: “There are probably ways of breaking up that kind of digitised retail logistics distribution operation, turning that into something which is easier to spin up in a particular location and maybe could benefit from economies of scale, while still having this cash collection in the hands of kids who've been in some way corrupted or exploited into signing up.”


A fairly low-tech example would be the use of storage lockers, for the supply and distribution of drugs, reducing the need for runners. One tech expert thought this was highly likely: "If there’s a lot more of those locker things coming up with other companies, if someone was to sort of almost do like a rent your own one, where you could perhaps distribute a whole load of drugs into a whole whole series of those. [...] Someone's got to go and fill them up and then someone's got to go and collect the money afterwards. But there's still a lot less interaction and running around."


A more technologically advanced example of automating distribution would be the use of drones. They were referred to by one young person we interviewed, who is currently involved in county lines dealing, when we asked for predictions about how operations could change. Drones are already used in other forms of criminal activity and their capabilities are increasing, in terms of battery power, connectivity and the distances they can cover.


A tech expert described how "drones have come a long way. And we already see drone deliveries in the prisons for drugs.". Another tech industry expert told us: “Live streaming video from your drone is a very realistic possibility with 5G whereas it's not quite such a good experience with 4G, so how that will play into the criminal world, goodness knows."


Automated delivery systems that reduce the number of people and the amount of communications required in parts of the drugs supply chain are likely to increase efficiency and profitability. There will be fewer opportunities for law enforcement to intervene and a lower risk of being caught. Current methods of detecting county lines activity would need to be adapted.


Increased efficiencies in logistics could lead to county lines gangs expanding their reach, possibly resulting in higher rates of drug use or more frequent clashes over territory. There is already evidence of ‘relay’ county lines, in which line-operators use staging points - breaking journeys in intermediate locations, within the trafficking of people, drugs and cash to minimise the risk of losses for the most dangerous parts of the journey. Automated delivery can enhance the possibilities of ‘relay’ while offering staging points for geographical expansion, from one dealing base to another.


Social media: a race to the bottom?

 

The use of end-to-end encrypted messaging apps by gangs operating county lines has been flagged as a growing concern for law enforcement agencies investigating extremism, child sexual abuse and youth violence - as well as county lines drugs gangs and child criminal exploitation. Interviews with young people involved in county lines we interviewed confirmed it was already happening. “Telegram in the world that I’m coming up in seems more popular.” Telegram is an online messaging app that offers an end-to-end encryption service where material can be viewed only by the sender and the intended recipient.


Tech experts we spoke to warned that the function of such apps would become more complex, warning of “super encrypted applications” on the horizon. Interviewees expected that their use by county lines gangs would increase but law enforcement experts said it would be confined to members of a county line, rather than between dealers and customers. "Criminal to criminal communication will evolve a lot faster than criminal to member of the public, or customer," said one expert.


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. A tech expert told us: “It all boils down to the fact that it is sending a radio signal out. And that radio signal can be detected.” Law enforcement agencies can also access the content of messages via the device of any sender or recipient.


Social media is changing all the time and new products are usually brought to market ahead of any consideration of their perverse uses, such as for child criminal exploitation. The Metaverse, with digital platforms focused on virtual and augmented reality, enables gangs to groom and exploit young people out of the sight of parents, teachers, social workers and police. The use of social elements of gaming, for this purpose, are well documented.


Likewise ‘live’ social media, through which content creators live-stream videos and interact in real time with followers and casual viewers, has exploded in popularity - without much discussion about how it may leave vulnerable children at risk of being criminally or sexually exploited. The amount of revenue generated by live social media creates strong incentives for platforms to find ways of getting more users to create and consume content.


Social media platforms are largely self-policing; companies set their own terms and conditions for users and decide how the rules will be monitored. There is some regulation, but it is in specific areas and spread across a number of organisations. ‘Live’ social media is a good example of how this largely unregulated space results in a ‘race to the bottom’. A responsible social media company may restrict permission to stream live content to verified adult users, but if other copycat platforms are less stringent, then responsible companies risk losing market share. The Online Safety Bill would give Ofcom new powers to regulate content but the passage of the Bill through Parliament has been delayed and its future is uncertain. This regulatory gap leaves a vulnerability which can be exploited by gangs to advertise a criminal lifestyle in real time, using streams to ensnare potential young victims.


Devolved social media

 

One final development that may affect county lines 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, for example Mastodon or 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.


Decentralised systems have been used 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.


Until July 2020, an estimated 60,000 criminals across the world were using a top secret communications system, EncroChat, to trade drugs and guns and organise attacks on rivals. EncroChat was successfully penetrated in a landmark operation led by French and Dutch investigators, with cooperation from Europol. The aftershocks are still being felt by the criminal underworld with some suspects prosecuted and convicted and others awaiting trial. The EncroChat case highlighted the acute need among crime gangs for secure, low-risk digital communications networks to organise their activities. They are of use not only to higher level gang members but also mid-level criminals, particularly leaders of street gangs involved in county lines who may be nervous about using existing social media platforms.


A government tech expert told us that ‘digital devolution’ poses a threat to police forces charged with disrupting county lines: “The decentralisation story is possibly a real threat [...] because there's no single authority you can go to, to say, ‘Okay, we know that such and such a user has been doing X’, whether that's {involvement in child sexual abuse material}, whether it's recruiting kids to take part in county lines operations, or whether it's radicalising them into acts of terror, there's no single point you can go to."


Interviewees said these platforms are most likely to be used exclusively for communication between organising members of a county line gang. Using decentralised apps to communicate with customers is neither realistic nor desirable. Such applications are not commonly used, meaning it is unlikely many customers would have prior experience with them.

Conclusion

 

Illegal drug markets are not just a criminal phenomena, they are part of a multi-billion pound industry. So we should not be surprised that the criminal networks who organise the wholesale, retail and logistics for county lines mimic tactics used in the legitimate retail economy. They are aware they have to be highly responsive to consumer shifts in the use of mobile communications: a successful retail business must be where both their customers and their potential workforce are.


The criminals who operate the drug lines manage risks by using tech, distancing themselves from the locations where deals are carried out. They have access to a seemingly endless pool of potential child labour which is increasingly groomed and ‘managed’, in other words, exploited, through social media.


The drug line operators and OCGs have become dependent on mobile technology, so that’s what law enforcement agencies need to focus on. Tasking teams of police officers to arrest dealers and raid ‘trap’ houses, where drugs are sold, is not an effective use of resources. But if the technology gangs deploy is disrupted real and sustainable damage will be inflicted on county lines. The Home Office should use new investment, announced in its latest Drugs Strategy, to improve police digital investigative capabilities and capacity - that would help officers target senior gang members with key operational roles in drug supply chains.


In our final report we will examine options for how the law enforcement community can adopt national strategic approaches to disrupting county lines and other forms of child criminal exploitation. The approaches include horizon scanning, developing and disseminating responses to emerging threats as they appear, and learning from specialist teams tackling terrorism and child sexual abuse, which use a suite of powerful and sophisticated tools to gain the upper hand.


 

To keep updated about this project and Crest’s wider research programme, sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Twitter.







Crest_Logo_White.png

The UK's only consultancy dedicated to crime and justice.

Crest_Logos_Blue_200.png