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Opinion

Children groomed into working in the drugs trade should be treated as victims of exploitation

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victims of exploitation

Whether it be young people used as mules to smuggle drugs across the Mexico-US border, or teenagers coerced into selling substances including crack cocaine and heroin on the streets of provincial towns up and down the UK, organised criminal gangs are increasingly grooming children into doing their dirty work for them. For middle-ranking drug gang members, recruiting expendable vulnerable children into the narcotics trade is a cheap and easy way of having somebody else take the lion’s share of the risk on their behalf. In exchange for a small amount of cash, a new pair of trainers or some designer clothing, dealers are able to groom young people into a life of crime in much the same way that paedophiles approach potential child abuse victims. Some might be forced to take part in smuggling missions, while others may be “employed” to keep watch over industrial-scale cannabis farms, but one thing they typically have in common is their vulnerability.

Children who are groomed into the drugs trade more often than not come from low-income families, and will routinely have experienced disadvantaged upbringings and may have suffered other forms of abuse during their lives. In many cases, they have more in common with victims of modern slavery than traditional street dealers or couriers, facing threats of violence or other forms of punishment if they fail to carry out the orders they are given by their groomers. Drug-dealing gangs will often target the most vulnerable young people they can find.

A recent investigation conducted by the Times of London revealed that British criminal networks regularly focus on recruiting children who have been excluded from mainstream education due to their poor behaviour, and often seek out kids who have problematic or chaotic home lives. In Mexico, drug cartels have even been known to kidnap children as young as 11 and force them to participate in torture and beheadings. While these may be particularly heinous crimes, it is vital not to lose sight of the fact that children who find themselves caught up in situations such as these often have little choice but to agree to the demands made of them.

Regardless of this, children who are groomed into working in the drugs trade are often left facing the full force of the law when they are caught, with little or no acknowledgement of the circumstances under which they became involved in criminality. While gang members higher up the supply chain are often able to avoid the attention of law enforcement agencies on account of their exploitation of children, young people who are arrested while carrying out their groomers’ bidding can wind up serving hefty jail sentences, with little to look forward to in the future thanks to serious drug offences being etched permanently onto their records.

Children who end up being groomed by drugs gangs have typically already been failed repeatedly by the time they are trapped in life of crime, be that by their parents, teachers or social workers who might have been charged with looking out for their welfare. But rather than being met with sympathy and understanding once they are arrested, many are treated as common criminals as opposed to the victims of grooming they clearly are. This has to change. Few teenagers dream of being paid peanuts to risk their liberty and sometimes their lives by ruthless drugs gangs that care absolutely nothing for their welfare, but many lead existences that are so bereft of purpose and meaning that the faux belonging offered by criminal networks can prove seductive.

If it were not for the failed global war on drugs, few children would have their lives blighted by being groomed into the narcotics trade. But as the legalisation of most illegal substances seems a long way off in most countries, law enforcement authorities across the globe have a responsibility to change their approach to young people who are effectively forced into working for drugs gangs. In some cases, one form of criminal punishment or another will be unavoidable, particularly in instances where young people have willingly allowed themselves to become involved in extreme acts of violence. But where this is not the case, and all evidence points to the fact that a vulnerable child with few other options in life has been groomed into criminality, surely we have a responsibility to offer counselling and support rather than punishment for being abused.

Just as the law in most countries does not treat victims of child sexual exploitation or modern slavery as criminals, we must move away from the idea that children involved in the drugs trade are routinely treated as offenders, and instead offer them an opportunity to rebuild their lives once they have escaped the clutches of their abusers.

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Opinion

The failed war on drugs has made vulnerable communities victims of deadly new psychoactive substances

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new psychoactive substances

A group of international researchers last month warned that new psychoactive substances (NPSs) such as synthetic cannabinoids Spice and K2 could be the cause of greater harm to users than more traditional mind-altering substances and stimulants including MDMA and cocaine. Presenting the findings of one the first major studies into the physiological and psychological effects of NPSs at the British Science Festival in the UK city of Hull in September, Professor Colin Davidson from the University of Central Lancashire, who led the research, revealed his team had discovered that so-called “legal highs” are more dangerous than traditional illegal drugs, and are in some cases more likely to induce conditions such as psychosis and schizophrenia. This will likely come as little surprise to anybody who has seen images of homeless Spice users on the streets of Britain, but should set alarm bells ringing, not least due to the fact that these types of drugs are increasingly being consumed by some of the most vulnerable members of society.

Despite bans on the substances in some countries such as the UK, NPSs can still be obtained quickly and easily in most places, regardless of whether restrictions on their sale and possession are in force. Hundreds of different variants of so-called legal highs are available for purchase on dark net marketplaces, the surface web, social media platforms, and from illicit street dealers, who have added them to the range of substances they sell in regions where they are banned. In most cases, NPSs will be much cheaper to buy than the substances they are intended to mimic, be that cocaine, cannabis or opioids.

Prior to the ban in the UK, which came into force in May 2016, campaigners expressed concern that outlawing the drugs would push users to start taking what were at the time viewed as more hazardous substances, such as heroin and crack cocaine. Evidence suggests that quite the opposite has happened, with vulnerable users such as prisoners and the homeless using legal highs at ever increasing levels, attracted by the relatively cheap oblivion they offer compared to other drugs. Many addicts who have been hooked on traditional hard drugs have said substances such as Spice are the worst things they have ever taken.

As is the case with much of the illicit fentanyl flooding into the US, the majority of legal highs that are sold in the West are produced by Chinese drugs factories, many of which have few qualms about selling their products to dealers in countries in which their distribution and/or possession is banned. While the Chinese government has paid lip service to stemming the flow of NPSs produced on its soil being shipped to other countries, occasionally listing new batches of the drugs as controlled substances, its interventions seem to have had little real impact on supply, with the distribution of fentanyl in the US and substances such as Spice and Monkey Dust in Europe remaining at a near constant.

When they first emerged, a range of drug users were attracted to trying so-called legal highs, either on account of the ease of their availability, low cost, or the novelty of sampling something different. But over the past few years, evidence suggests wealthier drug users have turned back to consuming traditional substances such as cocaine and ecstasy as more has been has been learned about the negative effects of NPSs, leaving vulnerable and marginalised people the most likely to take legal highs. A 2017 report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction revealed an increase in the number of vulnerable people injecting NPSs, and said that so-called legal highs continued to represent a considerable public health challenge for European countries. The study noted that while “negative consumer attitudes” may have had an impact on demand for NPSs across the EU, problematic use of the drugs was becoming more apparent among vulnerable communities, resulting in an increase in associated levels of both physical and mental health problems.

Far from pushing vulnerable addicts to use what were once perceived to be more harmful substances, a tightening of the law around so-called legal highs in some countries appears to have had the opposite effect, with increasing numbers of marginalised people turning to NPSs on account of their low price, ease of access and the total oblivion they offer. The irony here is that if it were not for the decades-long failed war on drugs, the scientists behind NPSs would have no reason to create them. As such, it is hardly surprising that banning these substances has not solved the problems they created. As things stand, it would seem as though years of poorly thought-through global drugs policy has resulted in the creation of a whole new class of substances that appear to be devastating our most vulnerable communities.

 

 

 

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Opinion

Politically correct policing only results in victims of real crime being denied justice

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politically correct policing

Police in the UK would appear to have more than enough on their plate at this particular moment in time. Knife and gun crime has rocketed across Britain over the course of the past year, with reports suggesting in April that the murder rate in London had surpassed that of New York. County lines drug gangs, which recruit children from deprived inner city locations and force them to sell substances such as crack cocaine and heroin in smaller towns, are exploiting a greater number of youngsters as their urban markets become more statured. On top of this, the reporting of sex crimes is on the rise, while senior officers have admitted law enforcement authorities have little hope of prosecuting the growing number of people who view indecent images of children online due to a lack of resources. This all comes at a time when police forces’ funding has been cut significantly by central government, and members of the public have complained about a lack of officers on the streets, as well as a failure of detectives to even investigate less serious offences. But despite the mounting pressure British police are facing, their managers seem to have decided they have adequate time and resources to investigate beastly comments made online.

Speaking with the Sunday Telegraph last week, Chairman of the UK Police Federation John Apter complained that officers are so busy dealing with trivial online spats that they are unable to tackle real crime. Noting that many officers feel they are unable to do the job they thought they had signed up for on account of having to deal with people being mean to one another on social media, Apter said police managers were exhibiting a lack of common sense when it came to priorities. Apter’s intervention came weeks after South Yorkshire Police ludicrously encouraged people to report “non-crime hate incidents”, which it said “can include things like offensive or insulting comments, online, in person or in writing”. The force was rightly mocked for its unintentionally comical message, but unfortunately for the British public, this type of thing appears to be becoming par for the course. In August of last year, Sussex Police became a laughing stock after its diversity and equality spokesman used his Twitter profile to complain that the labelling of supermarkets’ “feminine hygiene” sections was not gender neutral. The fact that a serving police officer could tweet such a preposterous message led many social media users to question whether Sergeant Peter Allan’s profile might actually be a parody account, while one of his colleagues labelled him “an embarrassment to the service”.

Hate crime is a serious and growing problem in the UK, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that police should not investigate fully if an offence has a racial, religious or sexual dimension. Last week, Ukip said it would ban hate crime prosecutions, arguing that the “motives of the criminal” should not be taken into account, which most right-minded people would dismiss out of hand. Attacking somebody because of the colour of their skin or their sexuality inarguably adds an aggravating factor to the nature of an offence, but this should not mean that police resources are tied up every time somebody makes a disobliging comment on the internet. It really has come to something when police forces are unable to respond to burglary reports due to a lack of resources, but appear more than willing to allocate seemingly unlimited officer hours to people who have taken offence to something somebody they barely know has posted online.

At a time when police funding in Britain is apparently spread so thinly, it truly beggars belief that any force should take to its own social media platforms to encourage members of the public to report “non-crime”. This would be a questionable use of resources even if police budgets were in surplus. The fact it is taking place when Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has complained that rising violent crime across the country is a direct result of budget cuts is the stuff of satire. At the same time, serving police officers with unblemished records are being hauled over the coals for inadvertently using language that the perpetually-offended brigade have taken as “racist”. Earlier this month, the London Evening Standard reported that a senior Metropolitan Police officer could lose his job for using the phrase “whiter than white” while briefing colleagues. Tens of thousands of pounds will now likely be spent on an inquiry into his use of a phrase which has for hundreds of years been accepted to mean “beyond reproach”. On balance, it seems possible that police budgets in the UK would be under much less pressure if forces across the country concentrated more on fighting crime, and less on initiatives designed to make them appear to be as politically correct as possible.

 

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Cyber

Regulators must make an example of British Airways following its massive data breach

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regulators must make an example of British Airways

Analysis carried out by risk consulting firm Kroll revealed earlier this month that reports of data beaches submitted by British organisations to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) rose by 75% over the course of the past two years, suggesting businesses across the country were gearing up for a new era of transparency ushered in by Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force at the end of May. Under the terms of GDPR, organisations must report personal data breaches to the relevant local authority within 72 hours of becoming aware of any such incident, or face a large fine of up to €10 million ($11.7 million) or 2% of global turnover, whichever is greater.

This is intended to prevent companies from covering up major breaches in order to protect their corporate image or brand. Just how seriously businesses are taking the new rules was made clear earlier this month by the speed with which British Airways (BA) went public with news that hackers had managed to steal the credit card details and personal information of nearly 400,000 of its customers. But while the airline may have avoided being hit with a fine for failing to go public quickly enough, it could still face a significant financial penalty if the breach is found to be a result of its failure to secure its customers’ information properly.

The company was quick to claim it had been hit with an extremely “sophisticated malicious criminal attack”, and issued the usual platitudes about taking customers’ data security seriously that companies typically fall back on in these types of scenarios, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. What made the BA breach particularly damaging for the firm was the fact that hackers managed to obtain full sets of customers’ credit card details, including CVV numbers. This would have meant that cyber criminals with access to the data would have been able to use it immediately to make purchases from pretty much anywhere on the internet, a fact that prompted a number of banks to take the unusual step of pre-emptively cancelling cards belonging to customers whose information may have been compromised.

As companies are not allowed to store CVV data on their systems, it is thought the hackers behind the attack harvested data from the firm’s checkout page in real time while customers were entering their card details. BA has said it is investigating the breach “as a matter of urgency”, and the UK’s National Crime Agency and National Cyber Security Centre are also assessing the attack. But regardless of their findings, it is vital the company faces a severe financial penalty for allowing its customers’ data to be compromised.

Firms the size of BA have the resources to ensure they stay one step ahead of cyber scammers, be they sophisticated or not. If they choose not to do so, they should face serious consequences. Online security experts from RiskIQ have said Russian hackers were responsible for the breach, pointing specifically at the Magecart group, which is said to have been behind a similar attack on the Ticketmaster website in June. RiskIQ researcher Yonathan Klijnsma, who analysed code from BA’s website and app, claimed to have discovered evidence of a “skimming” script designed to steal financial data from online payment forms.

“This particular skimmer is very much attuned to how British Airway’s payment page is set up, which tells us that the attackers carefully considered how to target this site instead of blindly injecting the regular Magecart skimmer,” Klijnsma wrote, seemingly suggesting the hackers may have taken advantage of weaknesses in BA’s IT infrastructure. Either way, it is alarming that the breach was allowed to continue for two weeks before it was detected and reported.

It is likely that BA will claim it was targeted by a hacking organisation so sophisticated and cunning that it would have been next to impossible for it prevent the attack, and that it should face no regulatory punishment as a consequence. However, if GDPR and similar legislation in other parts of the world are to stand any chance of forcing organisations to take better care of consumers’ data, it is surely in cases such as these where punishment should be applied. Major corporations will only start truly taking the security of their customers’ information seriously if they are forced to do so.

Allowing BA to wriggle off the hook after the latest in a long and sorry line of major data breaches at other companies simply sends the wrong message, and suggests GDPR will have no real impact. While most BA customers who had their details stolen might have been lucky enough to avoid having money taken from their credit cards after the breach, their personal details will now be doing the rounds on the dark web, leaving them exposed to identity thieves. Many could be dealing with the consequences for years to come, which is one of the main reasons BA should be made an example of. The ICO can and should make full use of its GDPR powers and hit BA where it hurts.

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