In April 2018, a criminal group based in West Yorkshire was arrested for selling illicit drugs to the UK, US, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Singapore. According to the National Crime Agency, they used a site on the dark web to market their wares, and made £163,000 in five months from December 2016.
Crime gangs and networks are increasingly using web technology as a means to enable criminal activities, such as laundering money, running drugs and people between and around countries, hacking networks and stealing data for sale or extortion. Traffickers can use social networks and online advertising sites to recruit and exploit victims of modern slavery and 'money mules' prepared to allow their accounts to be used for laundering. Criminal groups can use difficult-to-trace cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or Monero to trade their products, conceal the source of their finances and invest into the legal economy, or just to live much more affluently than their legal income would allow.
"As societies across the world are becoming increasingly more interconnected and digital, organised crime is adapting to this new landscape and integrating new technologies into the ways they operate," says Professor Mike Levi at Cardiff University. "The Russian gang behind the Koobface botnet, which propagated via social networks, infected up to 800,000 machines around the world and made $2 million annually. Europol data show significant increases in international groups operating within the EU now compared with 2013, and in their use of online methods to facilitate their activities."
Professor Levi is lead researcher for the new ESRC-funded research project Cyber-TNOC (transnational organised crime), which will focus on the impact of technologies on modern slavery, the sale of illicit drugs, the spread of malware and money laundering. The project will build up research evidence to inform policy development, intervention and decision-making related to Cyber-TNOC.
"Organised crime is changing rapidly. Researchers and practitioners need innovative methods to better respond to organised crime groups exploiting online technologies," says co-investigator Dr Luca Giommoni, also at Cardiff University. "This project will be the first one to build up a strong evidence base to inform policy development. The research will demonstrate how traditional and new forms of data, when analysed with social network analysis and artificial intelligence, has the potential to transform how governments, criminal justice and the private sector can work to address crimes that have a huge impact globally."
The research team will focus on modern slavery, the sale of illicit drugs, the spread of malware and money laundering, which all create substantial amounts of online data. By collecting this new data, as well as harvesting interviews and administrative records, the team will produce the clearest picture yet of how online technologies are reshaping transnational organised crime.
The danger of international 'cybercrim gangs' is increasingly recognised by authorities. At the end of 2018, the UK Home Secretary published the Government's Serious and Organised Crime Strategy, which included an integrated government approach to tackle the problem of cyber-criminality for gain. In addition to this, other European countries and law enforcement agencies such as Europol and Interpol are reformulating the way they deal with evolving crime problems. The private sector has also been alerted to the risk, more diligently reporting crimes and suspicions of crime, and using more intra-private and public-private collaboration for security measures, to complement law enforcement agencies' efforts.
The research team is beginning their research this month, with first findings expected to be published in 2020-21.