‘COUNTY lines’ criminality – where city drug dealers establish dedicated mobile phone or other forms of ‘deal lines’ to supply and sell drugs to users in towns and rural areas, often using vulnerable groups to carry, store, and sell the drugs – is perhaps less talked about in Scotland than England, but that doesn’t mean this sort of organised crime stops at the border.

Sadly, the consequences of drug misuse regularly draw headlines in Scotland, but reporting can sometimes obscure how these drugs get into communities, and the trail of destruction left in this process’ wake.

County lines organised crime groups (OCGs) prey on vulnerable young people to advance their own ends, often going as far as taking over a vulnerable person’s home – whilst relying on omertà, a strict code of silence, to avoid detection. Enforced by intimidation, in many cases this can involve shocking instances of violence against women and girls.

In these challenging circumstances, digital footprints can be vital in disrupting county lines OCGs. The use of communications technology, including encrypted messaging apps, has always defined this sort of criminality, with further developments including the use of AI technology to groom young people via social media or deploying drones to deliver drugs.

There have been successful operations to disrupt county lines crime in Scotland, and Police Scotland is evaluating the deployment of leading-edge forensic capabilities to reduce the effort required to identify, arrest and convict drug dealers.

Across various operations in England, Forensic Analytics’ ability to analyse vast amounts of data efficiently was pivotal in securing high conviction rates, severely degrading key OCGs’ operations

In under two years, forces using our CSAS software closed a total of 533 drug lines, arrested over 1,000 individuals and have a 99% conviction rate against line holders. During South Essex Police’s Operation Vietnam, CSAS helped to close 105 drug lines and allowed for evidence to be gathered in an average of four to six weeks, rather than months. When North Yorkshire Police trialled CSAS during Operation BUD, it took only 11 minutes to complete the processing of a complex set of raw data, an onerous task that the force’s chief analyst had previously spent four months on.

As digital media in criminal investigations grows exponentially, policing’s ability to solve crime, secure convictions and protect the public will be sorely tested as both the volume of data together with public scrutiny and expectations increase.

This ability to analyse rich data sources to irrefutably tie key players to criminality should be considered a vital weapon in Scotland’s ongoing fight against crime but will always be a cat-and-mouse process for police forces as technology such as 5G emerges and OCG techniques evolve.

Gripping the data that leaks out of these tech-dependent groups is essential in ending the drug problem we have in Scotland. Good investigative techniques coupled with well-trained officers and leading digital forensics software will enable policing to cut the head off the OCG snake and remove the scourge of drugs on Scotland’s streets.

Steve Rick is CEO of Forensic Analytics