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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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New regulations are required to prevent hackers exploiting the growing number of woefully-insecure IoT devices

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woefully-insecure IoT devices

In its latest annual assessment of the cyber security landscape, Finland’s Nokia this week warned about the growing threat posed to both businesses and consumers by poorly-secured connected devices such as smart home gadgets. The firm’s 2019 Threat Intelligence Report revealed that Internet of Things (IoT) botnet activity accounted for 78% of all malware detection events in communication service provider networks this year. That was more than double the rate seen in 2016, when IoT botnet activity was first detected in a meaningful way. Hackers are able to create IoT botnets by taking control of multiple connected devices and then using them to harvest personal banking information from consumers, or to launch distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on companies’ websites.

While this may be a relatively new phenomenon, researchers have been warning for years about the possible dangers presented by the deluge of connected devices that are being rushed to market by firms that consider security a low priority. In light of Nokia’s latest findings, and a forecast over the summer from Sweden’s Ericsson that predicted there will be 3.5 billion IoT connections by 2023, it is clear things need to change if we are to avoid hackers having easy access to a global army of insecure devices they could easily use to steal personal information and launch DDoS attacks.

As it appears many connected device makers are more concerned with getting their products on sale quickly for as low a price as possible rather than investing the resources required to make sure their inventions are secure, the time has surely come for governments around the world to intervene. With the threat posed by insecure IoT devices growing, the industry needs to be properly regulated to ensure the items it sells meet minimum security standards. While regulators and think tanks in both the US and the EU have looked at the possibility of creating new rules to guarantee a minimum level of security in IoT devices, lawmakers across the globe have so  far managed to do little more than produce largely unenforceable guidelines for makers of connected products.

In October, the US state of California became the first jurisdiction to the pass meaningful laws on IoT security, but this only applies to devices sold locally, so will likely have little real impact on the behaviour of connected product manufacturers. It is however a step in the right direction, and one that lawmakers elsewhere should look to follow as it becomes clearer that IoT product designers will only act on security if forced to do so. A slew of recent examples show that issuing guidance just does not work.

At the end of September, researchers at antivirus frim Avast announced that they had discovered “the most sophisticated botnet they have ever seen”. They revealed that the Torii botnet was targeting insecure IoT devices, and that the malware behind it was way more sophisticated and advanced than that which was responsible for the creation of the Mirai botnet and its derivatives. Once Torii has compromised one device, it is capable of spreading to other connected products on a user’s network, and is also designed to silently mine cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. During the same month, researchers at Princeton University cautioned that hackers could use botnets to attack key national infrastructure, including power grids.

Away from the threat of botnets, insecure connected devices also pose a significant risk to both the security and privacy of consumers. In a report published in November, the Mozilla Foundation examined the safety and security of a number of connected devices that are likely to be a hit with shoppers over the holiday season this year. The company warned that a number of the connected devices it tested, particularly drones and smart speakers, could spy on users and their children, or expose their personal information. Highlighting the risk to children, of the 18 products reviewed in the toys and games category, Mozilla found that just five met its “minimum standards”.

This all goes to show that connected device makers are paying little if any attention to the guidance being offered by researchers and governments. Instead, they are continuing to pump out inadequately-secured devices that not only pose a threat to the consumers who buy them, but also to businesses that could be targeted in DDoS attacks, and in some cases even national security. On current evidence, it is clear that these companies simply will not act unless they are compelled to, making it vital that governments across the world move quickly to force their hand. With the number of connected devices expected to rocket over the coming years, particularly with the advent of 5G technology, failure to act now may hand hackers access to millions of devices that could be harnessed to commit all manner of cyber-enabled crimes.

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UK police must come down hard on criminals driving the country’s spiralling gun and knife violence epidemic

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spiralling gun and knife violence epidemic

Eyebrows were raised in Britain last week when a judge allowed a zombie knife-wielding teenager to escape a jail sentence after he had been caught on camera attempting to smash a car window and attack a petrified driver. In an apparent fit of road rage, 18-year-old Joshua Gardner could be seen violently smashing his lethal blade into the glass, which was mere inches away from the face of the owner of the vehicle. Film of the incident, which occurred in south London earlier this year, showed Gardner attempting in vain to open the locked doors of the car, suggesting the person inside might have come off a lot worse had the furious teen been able to gain access to the vehicle.

Astonishingly, and in spite of the incredibly violent nature of his offence, Gardner was handed a suspended prison sentence after being convicted of attempting to cause grievous bodily harm with intent, having previously admitted affray and possession of an offensive weapon in public. To make matters worse, it later transpired that the teenager was in fact a member of a drill rap gang that had posted violent music videos online, and that he was known to police due his gang affiliations. While his sentence was criticised by figures including Metropolitan Police Superintendent Roy Smith and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, to many observers it was sadly symptomatic of a judicial system that appears unable to provide a deterrent to the mostly young men who are shooting and stabbing each other with alarming regularity on the streets of Britain.

Violent crime has rocketed across the UK over the course of the past year. In April, Britain’s Office for National Statistics revealed that knife crime had risen by 22% in England and Wales in 2017, while gun crime had gone up 11%. It was reported earlier this year that the number of murders in London had surpassed those recorded in New York. While this is no longer thought to be the case, the UK capital is on track to see its murder rate hit a 10-year high in 2018 if current trends continue. Many political figures and commentators have been keen to lay the blame for Britain’s spiralling levels of violent crime at the door of the current Conservative government and the coalition it replaced in 2015, complaining that rising crime levels have been caused by police cuts and austerity.

While it may be the case that both have in some way contributed to the growing problem, the lack of a deterrent for the offenders who are driving the increase in knife and gun crime across the country is perhaps a more important factor. Unfortunately though, critics of the current government seem largely unable to accept this, persisting with the line that young people would not be attacking each other with knives and guns if only funding were made available for a few more youth centres in which they could play snooker.

Furthermore, when police do come up with new tactics to fight the country’s bloody increase in violent crime, those who complain that the problem is all about budget cuts are often the first to dismiss them out of hand. In London, Scotland Yard recently announced that it had introduced new tactics that involved officers in cars nudging offenders using mopeds to commit crime off their bikes should they fail to stop when asked to do so. No sooner had police announced the new measures, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott took to Twitter complaining that it should be illegal for officers to behave in such a manner. Never mind the fact that gangs of mobile thieves have increasingly been marauding around the UK capital threatening people with massive blades and bottles of acid over the past few years. As far as Abbot is concerned, we should be more worried about the criminals’ wellbeing than their next potential victims, who in some cases could face being maimed for life should they be unlucky enough.

Elsewhere, the Metropolitan Police has come under fire for considering the deployment of armed officers in parts of London most at risk of gang-related crime. According to a report from the Guardian, campaigners have labelled the proposed move as “oppressive”. But as oppressive as some might view such an initiative, the simple fact of the matter is that at present, many violent young offenders feel as though they can operate with near impunity, with little fear of being arrested, let alone facing a meaningful punishment if they are convicted of a violent offence involving a gun or a knife.

If being nudged off a moped by police instead of being allowed to ride off to commit another offence prevents criminals from carrying out acts of violence, surely this is no bad thing. If the sight of armed officers on the streets discourages young people from carrying dangerous weapons, so be it. If strong sentences send a message to violent offenders that they face many years behind bars should they be caught, this has to be the best way to proceed. People on both sides of the political debate must accept that strong deterrents must now play a central role in the fight against rising levels of violent crime in the UK before an entire generation is lost.

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The continued failure to tackle illegal immigration in Europe is fuelling right-wing populism

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people trafficking and illegal immigration in Europe

Earlier this month, two major figures on the American left belatedly acknowledged the huge problems caused by uncontrolled migration into Europe over the course of recent years. Speaking at a Guardian Live event in London a few weeks ago, former US Secretary of State John Kerry said the continent had been “crushed” by the transformation forced upon it by the huge numbers of migrants that have travelled north to cross the Mediterranean from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere since 2015. A few days later, former US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton warned that Europe must get a grip on immigration to prevent the rise of right-wing populism. She argued that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy, while admirable and generous, had contributed to an increase in populist sentiment that had partly led not only to the Brexit vote in the UK, but also to her own defeat to Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election.

Most sensible people would struggle to genuinely argue against the suggestion that high levels of migration into Europe over recent years have contributed to a massive increase in far-right and populist sentiment across the continent. This has resulted in the rise to power of political figures such as Matteo Salvini in Italy and Viktor Orban in Hungary, as well as the emergence of groups such as the proscribed National Action in Britain, and the identitarian movement across North America and Europe. Putting aside the arguments that these individuals and groups make about the dilution of European identity and perceived problems such as crime and terrorism that they argue come as part and parcel of mass migration from the Middle East and Africa, it is not difficult to see why many Europeans who have watched their living standards deteriorate over recent years might object to millions of people being allowed to illegally enter their countries with impunity, regardless of whether they are seeking asylum or have come in search of a better life.

Supporting the rights of those in genuine fear for their lives to claim asylum is one thing, but if Europe’s left is to stand any hope of halting the continent’s shift to right-wing populism, it must speak out loudly about the illegal immigration, people smuggling and human trafficking that continues to blight the continent. Despite the crisis being close to entering its fourth year, migrants are still able to get into Europe with relative ease, and can also pass all but freely between EU countries pretty much as and when they please. Meanwhile, people smuggling gangs are continuing to profit from migrants moving both into and across the continent.

Since the beginning of this month, more than 100 suspected Iranian migrants have been intercepted while attempting to cross the English Channel from France to the UK. Officials in France said they suspected the uptick in the number of migrants attempting to get into Britain was being driven by organised people smuggling gangs operating on the French side of the Channel. Further south, it was reported over the weekend that the Moroccan navy had recovered the bodies of 15 suspected migrants from a people smugglers’ boat in the Mediterranean that had been left drifting without power for four days. While voices on the right routinely condemn the fact that these types of incidents are still allowed to occur with alarming regularity and have demanded action to make sure something is done to ensure that they stop, the left is almost silent on the matter, while those in the centre allow accusations of racism and xenophobia to drown out their objections to the depressing status quo.

The rise of right-wing populism across Europe has little to do with EU countries offering asylum to refugees fleeing war. Populist sentiment has risen as a result of the continent’s politicians allowing millions of people to enter their countries illegally, many of whom are economic migrants with no genuine right to claim asylum. Unfortunately, many on the European left consider it to be racist and bigoted to deny migrants the right to enter their countries illegally, regardless of the reason for which they came, or whether they have done so with the assistance of people smuggling gangs that may or may not be involved in other illegal activities such as terrorism.

The sad fact of the matter is that a failure of centrists and those on the left to provide an answer to this issue has created a void that right-wing populists have been only too keen to fill. This will only continue unless those who oppose the forces of populism start to take issues such as illegal immigration and human trafficking seriously. If they fail to do so, and ignore the warnings issued by their comrades Kerry and Clinton, more countries across Europe and perhaps further afield are all but guaranteed to see populism and the far right continue to grow in popularity.

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