SENIOR police officers have warned that criminals are increasingly using apps and encrypted messaging services to hide their illegal activities, and this is the biggest challenge facing teams trying to break up organised gangs.

Police Scotland said there had been more than 2,100 arrests made for organised crime offences in 2015, and estimated there were about 220 such groups in operation, dealing in drugs, firearms, high-value theft, fraud and human trafficking.

They believe most gangs are still profiting from “traditional” crimes but are using online resources to do deals and avoid detection. Such deals can be carried out on the so-called Dark Web, which is a collection of sites that are publicly visible but whose server identities are hidden, usually behind an encryption tool such as Tor (The Onion Router).

A Tor browser can be used to hide a person's identity or spoof their location, and running a website through it has much the same effect. While there are legitimate uses for some Dark Web sites, others can be used for illegal activities such as buying and selling drugs or firearms.

Encryption can be used on several messaging platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Google, which create a unique key for each encryption and have no “back door” to unlock them.

Detective Chief Superintendent Gerry McLean, head of the organised crime and counter-terrorism unit, said organised crime was still down to “profit, power and people”. However, with fierce debate raging over the use of the Regulations of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to access communications, officers said they knew there was a balance to be struck when tracking people.

McLean said: “They [gangs] are taking the additional step or layer of security around their communications [afforded by encryption] because of the success we have had over the last decade or so in communication strategies that show where calls were made and placed. They want to take themselves away from conventional itemised telecommunications billing and use apps based on their phone.

“We’ve got to be alive to the possibility that they will use any kind of means to communicate [and] what we are seeing more use of is the use of encrypted devices – telephones with software within them – that have been about for a number of years.

“I think discussions about Ripa and in terms of how law enforcement can secure communications data in the future is something they are alive to. Particularly the type of crime groups we are targeting – that top 20 per cent – the ones that have got perhaps the most to lose are always looking at new methods of communications.

"We’re firmly in the camp of trying to catch criminals but we need to give that reassurance to the community and there is a balance to be struck.

“Every time we use a tactic and take someone to court we expose that tactic so we somewhat ruin it for ourselves and have to invent new ways to tackle organised crime.”

Assistant Chief Constable Ruaraidh Nicolson added: “Organised crime groups will become involved in anything that facilitates them making profit. They’re becoming heavily involved in the internet, whether that’s traditional crime facilitated through the internet or new online crimes.

“It’s an area that policing needs to become much more adept at investigating and understanding but that requires a large investment in technology, something that the public sector probably doesn’t have the finance to deal with as readily as we would like.”