“These kind of spats aren’t a new thing, they’ve always been around, but what’s different is the ability to arrange them in private, behind closed doors, and to reach a lot more people.”
Police in Lancashire have found themselves up against a relatively new obstacle when it comes to investigating knife crime involving youths on the streets - social media.
Incidents near Runshaw College in Leyland, where a student was stabbed, and in Liverpool Road, Penwortham, where there was a confrontation between up to 12 people, have all been linked to use of social media.
End-to-end encryption on platforms such as Whats App means private chat messages are scrambled, and only the sender and the receiver of the messages have the “keys” to read them.
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Such technology is now thought to be making it easier for youths to arrange ‘fights’ with rival groups, and for organised crime groups to arrange criminal activity.
Nationally, police chiefs have deemed rapid advances in technology one of their biggest challenges.
Ch Insp Gary Crowe, of Lancashire Police, told the Post that in many of the fight cases reported by the Post in recent weeks, social media or apps played a part.
He said: “We would class it as an emerging trend issue. From the incidents that made the news recently, I know that’s where they’ve been coordinated.”
Ch Insp Crowe said there was a variety of ways the trend had been discovered, including parents or teachers detecting social media messages, or someone within a social media group reporting activity to police.
He adds: “Every kid has a mobile now. Once upon a time school spats would be arranged by word of mouth.
“I always think about when I was a teenager. There was only one phone and it was in the lounge - you couldn’t sit there and arrange a fight over the phone because your parents were sitting on the settee watching TV.
“But now everybody has this private little cyberspace. We’re asking parents do they know what their child’s digital footprint looks like?
“We are asking them to be aware of what their children are using, what are they doing, what have they got access to.
“Parents must also have some safeguards.
“I would say these kind of spats aren’t a new thing, they’ve always been around, but what’s different is the ability to arrange them in private, behind closed doors, and to reach a lot more people. The methodology has changed.”
Despite the concerns around cybercrime, those responsible for arranging criminal acts were today warned growing advances on technology mean Lancashire Police have the ability to crack encrypted apps and social media.
Ch Insp Crowe added: “We’re trying to promote that message. We have the knowledge and hardware to get into interlocked phones. The police have ways and means through their existing police powers.”
Each police division has a ‘kiosk’ that can be used by 350 trained detectives to download data from phones belonging to witnesses or suspects within minutes.
Between 100 and 200 phones are ‘downloaded’ across all the divisions each month.
In addition, for tech that proves tougher to crack, a team of around 50 officers in the force’s Digital Media Investigation Unit, based at Hutton HQ, can use additional powers to decode phones, such as those that are locked or are suspect to hold indecent images.
It is headed by Insp Andy Horne. He said: “Our understanding and capabilities are getting better.
“It’s an arms race, we have to keep up with technology.
“We have tools in our arsenal that mean we can examine data from a multitude of sources and this should act as both a deterrent and as reassurance to the public.
“We have tools that give us the ability to recover what we need.
“With the right consent we can recover data and use it in evidence.”
The force is also joining national efforts to look at look at analytical technology that could potentially predict offending,
He adds: “We sit as part of an evidence-based police group. We do a lot of evidence-based policing analytics. Policing as a whole is massively focused now on leading these kind of projects.”
A document called Policing Vision 2025 by the National Police Chief’s Council points out the growing threat from cybercrime and says ‘digital policing’ will make it easier for the public to make contact with the police, enable forces to make better use of digital intelligence and evidence, and transfer all material in a digital format to the criminal justice system.
It says ‘digital policing’ will involve “gathering comprehensive information about victims, offenders and locations quickly from mobile technology and using analytics to help us make decisions about where we target limited resources.”
It comes as Britain is developing “predictive policing” technology. The National Data Analytics Solution (NDAS), will use a combination of evidence and statistics to try to assess the crime risks.