What is 'remote mothering' and how are apps being used to control child drug runners?

Allegra Stratton

Former National Editor

The Government has been warned technology and apps like "Find my iPhone" are being used by organised crime groups to strengthen their grip on exploited child drug runners, ITV News has learned.

Officials at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have been alerted that drug bosses are using Find my iPhone to track the movement of children around the country.

Technology is even allowing convicted criminals to continue running their network of children selling drugs from inside prison.

Convicted criminals are still able to continue running their network selling drugs from inside prison. Credit: ITV News

The warning comes on the day the Government launched its £3.6 million county lines coordination centre - intended to encourage different police forces to work together better in combating organised criminals sending children between different parts of the country.

The boss of the County Lines Coordination Centre, Sue Southern, explained to ITV News what she hoped her team would achieve: "We need to understand how that model operates across and outside of the prison estate and there will be definitely cases where there are individuals who take that same criminal activity into the prison and run it."

A spokesperson for the MoJ said they were "investing £2 million in detection equipment to find and block mobile phones", adding that "anyone breaking prison rules faces extra time behind bars.

“Criminal gangs threaten the stability and security of our prisons, which is why we are investing £14 million each year to cut off their ability to do business."

The use of apps to control county lines children is leading to extreme behaviour changes among them, according to one frontline worker.

Rhiannon Sawyer of the Children's Society, said children she interviewed were reluctant to sit down because the GPS tracker on their phone might suggest to their drug bosses that they were no longer working.

Michelle Storrod says organised crime groups used technology to keep tabs on groomed children. Credit: ITV News

Academic Michelle Storrod told ITV News the bosses of organised crime groups (OCGs) used technology like Find My iPhone to keep tabs on groomed children.

Because this sees the OCGs monitoring children's every move it has been given the name "remote mothering".

"'Remote mothering' is used especially in criminal exploitation and selling drugs across county lines," Ms Storrod explained.

"In order to monitor the journeys and watching where they are going through Find My Iphone, you can actually watch where the phone is moving: making sure they are getting on the train, seeing if they are being picked up by the police, making sure they are not taking breaks, even.

Drug bosses are using Find my iPhone to track the movement of children around the country. Credit: ITV News

"Making sure they are not wandering off to go shopping.

"They are literally watching them all the time, and then when they are in the houses what they are doing is getting the children to FaceTime them or send snap chats or videos to show and video who is in the house.

"To make sure they are not with anyone they shouldn't be.

"To show how many people are there.

"To show that the drugs still exist.

"And that they haven't lost or sold or done anything they shouldn't have done.

"Things like Snapchat are really useful because obviously it all disappears.

"You can send that to specific people.

"From prison it is still possible for them to be part of networks that are connected to other people and they are watching where, they are monitoring young people who are part of county lines.

Monitoring children's every move it has been given the name 'remote mothering'. Credit: ITV News

"It's the idea that they have 24/7 surveillance on the younger gang members.

"So they know if they sent them 200 miles away to sell drugs across county lines within crack houses... they could see where they were at every point in that journey.

"What it means is that those young people are unable to let their battery go dead, unable to lose their phone, have their phone stolen or be out of range.

"Because if they can't be seen, if they don't know where or what they are doing - then that means there's consequences and those consequences are violence towards them or violence towards their family."

The Government is encouraging encourage different police forces to work together better in combating organised crime. Credit: ITV News

Ms Sawyer echoed these concerns: "What we've seen in our meetings with young people, they'll be walking around the space and we'll try and get them to sit down.

"Or even if we're running groups in youth offending teams they'll constantly be on their phone or they'll have to leave... because they are on call.

"And that's the most important thing to them.

"Because they are scared and because they know the consequences if they don't adhere to what's being expected of them ... they are being tracked through GPS."