Cutting the head off the snake

Addressing the role technology plays in the county lines model


Authors: Joe Caluori, Head of Policy and Research | Violette Gadenne, Research Lead | Beth Mooney, Strategy & Insight Manager | Ellen Kirk, Analyst


Friday 28 October 2022


FINAL REPORT: Cutting the head off the snake (PDF)
LONG READ 1: Running out of credit: Mobile phone tech and the birth of county lines
LONG READ 2: Five things you need to know about new tech and county lines
PROJECT PAGE
 

The National Crime Agency published its first intelligence assessment of county lines in 2015. Ever since, there has been growing interest in county lines from the media, public policy and the world of research. Crest Advisory has published research which has contributed to the body of evidence, including about the socio-economic determinants of individual vulnerability to exploitation, shining a light on ways to reduce the risks. This project, however, takes a different approach, by honing in on the specific role played by technology in county lines.


In this report, ‘technology’ is used to refer to electronic or digital devices or services - predominantly those used for personal communication. By including devices and services in our definition we incorporate both physical hardware such as mobile phones or smartwatches, and software such as applications provided by social media platforms.


Technology plays an increasingly important role in our day-to-day lives. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the proportion of adults who use the internet daily has increased from 35 per cent of the UK population in 2006 to 89 per cent in 2020. The nature of this use has also changed dramatically, with social media increasing in influence significantly over the years. In 2021 TikTok, a social media platform designed for sharing short videos, overtook Google for the first time as the most popular site worldwide.


Just as modern technologies are now an essential aspect of modern society, technology is intrinsic to the county lines model. The mobile phone, or the ‘line’ it facilitates, enables communications between those running the lines, those distributing the drugs, and those buying and using the drugs. Current approaches to disrupting county lines rely heavily on mobile communications technology (e.g. cell site analysis, or digital forensics gained from burner phones, personal smart phones or other digital devices). However, the role of technology as an enabler of child criminal exploitation (CCE) is both under-represented and poorly understood in published research and literature. The Government has announced an intention to “cut the head off the snake” of county lines. To understand what is required to do this, it is necessary to explore the dynamics of the country lines model, as well as examining its weaknesses. There is an acute need to better understand and monitor technological evolutions within county lines and analyse their implications for CCE. Only by understanding and responding to the role of technology can the Government and law enforcement leaders produce an effective national plan to ‘cut the head off the snake’ of county lines.


Recent public policy developments have put the role technology plays in enabling crime in sharp focus. Social media and online platforms have seen perhaps the most dramatic rise in interest. Even though, at the time this report is being drafted, the Online Safety Bill has been put on hold, much ink has been spilled on its value, its potential impact on privacy and what should be included in such legislation. High profile cases, such as the events leading to the 6th January attack on the United States Capitol in 2021, have shown the potential harm that can be caused by online communication. More generally, as we become more and more dependent on tech for all aspects of our lives, it is crucial that law enforcement keeps pace with its development with regards to crime.


Our approach

 

This report is a result of exploring the past, current and potential future role technology plays in county lines, based upon desk research and interviews with gang members, police officers and tech experts. Prior to the report, Crest published two ‘long reads’: one focused on exploring the past role of technology in county lines, the other identifying key trends in the future evolution of technology and how that may affect county lines. This report brings together insights from both long reads with new research, to highlight the impact of technological evolution on the county lines model. In this way, Crest and Forensic Analytics have brought forward a suite of evidence-informed recommendations for a framework of collaboration between law enforcement and other agencies involved in the disruption of county lines.


Key findings

 
  • Mobile communications technology has been essential to the ‘how’ of county lines as an enabler essential for both grooming and exploiting children and selling drugs to users

  • Current understanding of county lines may be limited. The picture appears far more diverse than it is commonly presented.

  • Technology is already used to conceal county lines activity. In the future it may be possible to further obscure the identity of those responsible, even when county lines activity is uncovered.

  • Neither law enforcement or the technology sector can solve these problems themselves. Both sides must contribute to avoid repeating past mistakes.

  • Tech companies appear to under-estimate the harm is caused by county lines and do not respond to police requests related to county lines with the level of urgency or concern they show about sexual exploitation.


Recommendations

 

Reframing the debate

  • County lines should be framed in the context of child criminal exploitation (CCE) rather than drug dealing

  • A statutory definition of child criminal exploitation should be included in legislation.

  • Communications companies should respond to law enforcement data requests about county lines in the same way as they do with requests relating to child sexual expoitation


Building the right infrastructure

  • Create a clear legal framework for sharing knowledge and data between the technology sector and law enforcement, limiting exchanges to what is necessary and appropriate

  • Pilot the use of machine-learning techniques in law enforcement to make the best and most efficient use of data

  • Review procurement routes to avoid blocking small innovative technology companies from entering the market and proposing new solutions


Getting the upper hand in the technology arms race

  • ‘Hands-on’ training should be given to law enforcement officers to teach them how to use digital investigatory methods

  • Law enforcement should make greater efforts to publicise their technological capabilities to act as a deterrent

  • Funding should be provided to set up specialist law enforcement teams with digital expertise, with costs and benefits of the investment monitored over time.

  • Single Points of Contact (or similar positions) should be set up to liaise with mobile and communications technology companies

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