Dial-a-dope operations have been a fixture of gang activity for decades. But as technology evolves, drug dealers have been evolving with it, creating big challenges for modern police.
Scoring by phone
Dial-a-dope lines are exactly how they sound: Users can call a designated phone number and organize a time and a place for a drug deal to go down.
That’s when the dealer sends ‘runners’ out to deliver the dope, and the RCMP’s Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit says the prototypical runner is a teenager or young adult, who is promised power, profit, and prosperity by one of the higher-ups in the gang.
In the past, the deals were done through disposable, untraceable cell phones, or ‘burners’ as they were called.
Then came pagers, and consequentially BlackBerry Messenger.
These are all methods of communications that were previously untraceable to police and other law enforcement agencies, but as time passes, the technology changes.
Anti-gang activist Mani Amar says today’s gangsters have unlocked the power of their smartphones to boost business.
“As soon as BlackBerry Messenger lost its prevalence in the technology industry, things like Snapchat, which is even more secure. And there’s a couple other apps out there but Snapchat being the main one – the information disappears in a couple seconds.
Snapchat works like any peer-to-peer picture or messaging application: Users can exchange pictures and messages at the push of a button.
The difference is, the pictures and messages last for a maximum of ten seconds after opening them.
After that, they’re wiped off of the phone and the data is encrypted.
“As soon as you view what I’ve sent you, and I exit out of that screen, that information is no longer available, it’s deleted. That picture is no longer available, that video is no longer available, that chat log is no longer available.”
That means law enforcement agencies who want to get their hands on any pictures or messages between drug dealer and user have to go through miles of red tape with Snapchat.
It’s a situation not dissimilar to the one facing the FBI and Apple in the agency’s bid to have the company unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.
If a police agency like the FBI has to go through a battle in Supreme Court to get Apple to unlock an iPhone, that puts into perspective how much work it would take for local police to get Snapchat to provide evidence of exchanges between drug users and dealers on its app.
“It’s a lot more difficult. How can they? They can’t even prove that anything was perpetrated through Snapchat. Going to, say Snapchat’s company and asking for information, chances are Snapchat’s servers are flushed with that information a couple minutes after they’re flushed from our side. So the lack of evidence is definitely there, which makes it much more difficult for a law enforcement to catch these perpetrators that are doing the new age dial-a-doping.”
And Amar says Snapchat represents just the tip of the iceberg.
“They use code words through tweets on Twitter, Facebook Messenger, or anywhere where the information can be deleted or there’s an extra level of red tape where you have to warrant something such as Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat. It makes it next to impossible for law enforcement, especially with these companies being U.S.-based.”
The end result is tens of thousands of dollars being exchanged everyday in Surrey alone. Amar guesses nearly half the transactions are conducted using Snapchat as the third party.
Oh, and if you thought about taking a screenshot of anything in Snapchat with your smart phone?
“I would be alerted on my side, saying that this user has taken a screenshot of this picture, and that keeps people very honest among each other. So if I was going to send you a picture of a gun I have to trade for ten pounds of marijuana, and you were going to sell me out and you took a picture of that, well now I would know I can’t trust you.”
So what can be done to combat cyber crime through Snapchat? The solution seems to be getting officers involved in the technology themselves, and staying up to date on the changing outlets of drug dealing.
“Right now, I see law enforcement having a huge hill to climb. We’re not going to see hands-on crime as much in the future as we will see digital crime and digitally prepared crimes. So drug deals being used by Snapchat and other means is just the tip of the iceberg. We’re going to see more crimes prepared through technology than ever before. It’s just the way the world is going, with a lot more tech-savvy youth – and law enforcement needs to catch up. We do need to invest for our law enforcement agencies to have a technological department everywhere, we need to catch up to these guys.”