How Online Technologies are Transforming Transnational Organised Crime (Cyber-TNOC)

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Sch of Social Sciences


The role of online technologies in organised crime is growing, as it is in wider society. Traditionally, organised criminals would threaten or (in the UK) much less often resort to the use of violence and intimidation to extort or concentrate their markets. As societies across the globe are becoming increasingly more interconnected and digital, organised crime is adapting to this new landscape and integrating new technologies into their modus operandi. The Europol 2017 Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment estimates that there were 39 percent more international crime groups within the EU (excluding the UK) in 2017 compared with 2013. Overall, these groups are now making an increasing use of online methods to facilitate their activities (NCA 2017, 2018). In April 2018, the NCA arrested a criminal group selling illicit drugs to the UK, US, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Singapore via a site on the dark web. According to the NCA, the West Yorkshire based-group made £163,000 between December 2016 and April 2017. The Russian gang behind the Koobface botnet, which propagated via social networks, infected up to 800,000 machines around the world and made $2M dollars annually. Traffickers can also use social networks and online advertising sites to market, recruit, sell, and exploit victims of modern slavery. These criminal groups can resort to Centralised Virtual Currencies (e.g. WesternUnion, WebMoney and PerfectMoney) or Cryptocurrencies (e.g. Bitcoins, Monero, Ethereum) to conceal the illicit origin of their finances and invest into the legal economy.

The reported (and very probably real) stark increase in the use of online technologies by TNOC groups poses new analytical challenges and requires the formulation of new regulatory and governance models. This response has begun, with the UK Home Secretary announcing in 2017 a review of the Government's Serious and Organised Crime Strategy with the objective of a whole-of-government approach to tackling the evoving problem. In addition to this, other European countries and law enforcement agencies such as Europol and Interpol are reformulating their actions against these evolving crime problems, and growing elements of the private sector are increasingly 'responsibilised' by legislation and self-interest to report crimes and suspicions of crime, and to improve the impact of those reports by more intra-private and public-private collaboration (via the Joint Money-Laundering Intelligence Taskforce and counter-fraud intelligence sharing). Open source data are of growing importance to threat assessments (though this is yet to appear explicitly in some threat assessments).

These responses are clear indicators that national and international organisations recognise the changing nature of transnational organised crime. However, the pace of evolution of organised- and cyber- crime threats (and our awareness of connections between them) seems to be increasing. Indeed, the cyber dimension of Transnational Organised Crime will continue to permanently evolve. This online trend requires responses by law enforcement, policy makers, the private sector and academia that may benefit from greater coordination, despite resource limitations.

New empirical datasets combining traditional and online sources along with innovative analytical methods are necessary to better understand and then respond to organised crime groups exploiting online technologies. This project will be the first one to build up a strong evidence base, using heterogeneous data sources, to inform policy development, intervention and decision making related to Cyber-TNOC The project will demonstrate how traditional and new forms of data, when analysed with innovative research methods such social network analysis and artificial intelligence, can have a transformative impact on how governments, criminal justice and the private sector work to address Cyber-TNOC.

Planned Impact

This project will build up a strong evidence base, using offline and online data, to inform policy development, intervention and decision making related to Cyber-TNOC. The project will demonstrate how traditional and new forms of data, when ethically linked and repurposed using data science tools and methods, can have a transformative impact on how enforcement, private and third sector agencies identify and respond to this evolution of TNOC. It will better inform understanding of its consequences for individuals and communities, and its underlying drivers.

We will work closely with members of the Project Advisory Group, including Cifas, Crown Prosecution Service, Deloitte, the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, South Wales Police, Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, and the United Nations Inter-regional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) (see letters of support). Other enforcement and private sector groups have expressed positive support verbally and are reasonably expected to collaborate later. We will also engage with existing contacts to disseminate findings, including UK Finance, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), City of London Police, Police Scotland, National Crime Agency, and the Home Office. Engagement with these user groups and dissemination at public events will help elucidate the core principles for translation and comparison of this research for national and international best practice. The project will be co-delivered with non-academic stakeholders, ensuring our work is timely and has 'real world' relevance. We will achieve non-academic impact by:

1) Disseminating project findings to key stakeholders via Levi's roles on the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime and on the small advisory group to Europol on the Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment, the iOCTA and EC3;

2) Involving key stakeholders working in organised- and cyber- crime policy and practice (policy, criminal justice and third sector), in the early stages of the data collection and analysis via the Project Advisory Group;

3) Running a policy-maker, criminal justice and private sector/third sector event in Cardiff to disseminate project findings;

4) Disseminate project findings at thematic conferences organised by stakeholders, including the 5th International Conference on Governance, Crime and Justice Statistics (Co-organised by UNODC);

5) Providing free access to a new empirical databases on offline and online drug trafficking flows, malware propagation, modern slavery, and money laundering along with associated training materials (we will liaise with the UKDA to identify what is ethically sharable);

6) Providing free access to an enhanced online Ethics Guide for using new online sources of data for academic and non-academic researchers.

All work-packages include dedicated sustained engagement with stakeholders from policy, criminal justice and the third sector. UNODC will be involved from the early stages of the data collection as they provide information on offline drug trafficking flows. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction will also be involved on an early stage of the project to investigate the possibility of alternative data sources on offline drug trafficking. We will actively engage with Europol forensic unit to develop interventions that can have a sustained impact on online drug trafficking flows.


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