Police Face Online Organised Crime Battle

29 December 2015, 06:00

Crime gangs are abandoning traditional means of communications and using more apps and encrypted messaging services to evade police, senior officers have said.

The issue has been described as the biggest challenge facing police teams focussed on breaking up organised crime groups.

There have been more than 2,100 arrests made over organised crime offences in 2015, and Police Scotland estimate there are around 220 such groups in operation dealing in drugs, firearms, high-value theft, fraud and human trafficking.

Senior officers believe most gangs are still profiting from "traditional'' crimes but are using online resources to do deals and avoid detection.

Detective Chief Superintendent Gerry McLean, head of the organised crime and counter-terrorism unit, said organised crime is still down to "profit, power and people''.

But with fierce debate around the use of the Regulations of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to access communications, officers know there is a balance to be struck when tracking people.

Mr McLean said: "They (gangs) are taking the additional step or layer of security around their communications because of the success we have had over the last decade or so in communication strategies that show where calls were made and placed.

"They want to take themselves away from conventional itemised telecommunications billing and use apps based on their phone.

"We've got to be alive to the possibility that they will use any kind of means to communicate, what we are seeing more use of is the use of encrypted devices - telephones with software within them that have been about for a number of years.

"Also voice over internet protocols and apps rather than traditional calls or text messaging - any type of communications they think can evade law enforcement they will use.

"I think discussions around Ripa and in terms of how law enforcement can secure communications data in the future is something they are alive to and will change their methodology.

"Particularly the type of crime groups we are targeting - that top 20% - the ones that have got perhaps the most to lose are always looking at new methods of communications.''

He added: "Quite clearly we understand there is a balance to be struck. We're firmly in the camp of trying to catch criminals but we need to give that reassurance to the community and there is a balance to be struck.

"Every time we use a tactic and take someone to court we expose that tactic so we somewhat ruin it for ourselves and have to invent new ways to tackle organised crime.''

A number of high profile cases have concluded this year where the leaders or "principles'' of organised crime groups have been jailed.

Stephen Nisbet, who ran a drug business despite being in jail for murder, was sentenced to 12 years as part of an operation that led to 66 people being arrested, including his brother James Nisbet junior.

Scotland's first "cuckoo smurfing'' case - a complicated international money laundering scheme - was also concluded with Muhammad Hameed, Saleem Shikari and Shahid Aslam jailed for a total of nine years.

Officers said some investigations can take up to five years to conclude.

Assistant Chief Constable Ruaraidh Nicolson said: "Organised crime groups will become involved in anything that facilitates them making profit. They're becoming heavily involved in the internet, whether that's traditional crime facilitated through the internet or new online crimes.

"It's an area that policing needs to become much more adept at investigating and understanding but that requires a large investment in technology, something that the public sector probably doesn't have the finance to deal with as readily as we would like but none the less there is a lot of work in that area.''