UK Cops Tried ‘DDoS-Style’ Tactics on Drug Dealers’ Phones

The technique likely wasn’t a literal DDoS, and instead telcos cutting off certain phones. But the end result was the same—drug dealers can’t communicate.

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Mar 6 2018, 1:30pm

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UK police have trialed a new tactic designed to disrupt the drug trade by remotely disabling dealers’ phones, according to comments made by law enforcement officials during a recent police conference.

Police officers have said the tactic uses ‘DDoS-style’ techniques, although it likely works in a different technical way, with authorities ordering telcos to disable certain phones.

At the Society of Evidence Based Policing conference last week, Alex Murray, an official from West Midlands Police, spoke about the tactic of ‘DDoSing’ dealers’ phones, two people present at the conference told Motherboard.

“Targeting offenders to deny them a network to supply,” one of the people, Dan Reynolds, a serving officer in Cheshire, said in a Twitter direct message. “Not my work but presented as a possible evidence based method of deterring crime,” he added.

Clare Nettleton from the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology, who also attended the conference, told Motherboard that the work was a trial run for a UK police force.

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Murray did not respond to a request for comment. West Midlands Police declined to comment, and so did the National Crime Agency (NCA), with a spokesperson saying the agency cannot discuss tactics and techniques.

The powers seem to be related to ‘drug dealing telecommunication restriction orders’ (DDTROs), judging by a tweet from Neil Ralph, detective chief inspector at Devon & Cornwall police, posted during the conference.

Motherboard previously covered these overlooked proposed powers. They work with a senior law enforcement officer applying for a court order which is then presented to a communications provider, such as a telco company. According to a copy of the regulations, a device might be identified by its IMEI, a unique number given to each phone; its IMSI, a identifier linked to a SIM card; or, in some cases, an Android identifier number.

The telco is then compelled to restrict service to that specific device. With that in mind, it seems the newly trialed blocking of dealers’ phones was not a literal DDoS-attack, in which a target is bombarded with so much traffic that it ceases to function, but instead, as Nettleton tweeted, more of a “DDoS-style” tactic. But the end result is essentially the same, with a target not being able to communicate with others.

These orders may be used when law enforcement can’t prosecute a suspected drug dealer, but want to slow down or otherwise interfere with the drug trade.

“Where prosecution is not possible, the police and the NCA have been clear that closing down the phone lines will seriously disrupt county lines drug dealing and the associated violence and exploitation,” Baroness Williams of Trafford, the minister of state, said during an exchange on drug dealing telecommunication restriction orders in November. “County lines” is the UK phenomenon of city-based drug dealers pushing into the more rural market, typically taking advantage of young or vulnerable people to move and sell the drugs, according to a 2017 NCA report.

Although details are sparse, the trial was apparently a success, according to comments made by Murray.

Nettleton from the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology Criminology tweeted, attributing the comment to Murray, “DDoS-style police targeting of drug dealers’ phones caused huge reductions in trade.”