Cyber crime has been on an upward trend across Europe for many years now, indicating that law enforcement agencies are failing to keep up with tech-savvy criminals who are seemingly able to remain one step ahead of efforts to thwart their illicit online activities. In some countries such as the UK, virtual offences have outnumbered traditional crimes for some time, suggesting that organised criminal groups are increasingly migrating away from physical offences to online scams.
But while many have diversified into activities that are wholly dependent on the internet – such as malware distribution, phishing and sextortion – others have harnessed technology to disrupt the way traditional crimes are carried out, using advances to help them avoid detection and maximise profits.
Online child sexual exploitation
Before the rise of the internet, paedophiles were forced to share indecent images and videos of children either physically or through the postal system, and groom potential victims in the real world. Now, technology allows them to readily swap child abuse material online and use the internet to procure minors to abuse. While the efforts of law enforcement agencies and internet companies have done much to deter paedophiles from using the surface web, many are now turning to more advanced technology to carry out their illegal activities online.
In its 2016 Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment (IOCTA), Europol noted how online child abusers are increasing using end-to-end encrypted platforms to share abuse material, and virtual currencies to monetise the live-steaming of online sex shows featuring minors, many of which are now broadcast via virtual private networks from countries with poor child protection laws such as the Philippines.
Earlier this week, it was reported that police in Spain had coordinated an international operation that resulted in the arrest of 39 people in Europe and Latin America on suspicion of using closed groups on WhatsApp to share indecent images and videos of children. News of the arrests came after the Internet Watch Foundation’s 2016 annual report revealed that online paedophiles are using increasingly sophisticated masking techniques to hide indecent images and videos of children in plain site on legitimate websites.
Encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram have long been the preferred method of communication for members of Islamist terror groups such as Daesh. The attackers in the recent Westminster and Stockholm atrocities were both said to have used the former to communicate with associates before ploughing their vehicles into innocent members of the public. As well as using these platforms to communicate, Islamist groups also take advantage of their secure nature to distribute their propaganda material, including gruesome videos of prisoners being decapitated.
The widespread use of these platforms by terrorist entities has prompted calls for the companies behind them to provide security services with back door access to their services. After last month’s Westminster attack, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd called on WhatsApp to make its service accessible to authorities. In September last year, Dutch spy chief Rob Bertholee said services including Telegram, WhatsApp and Signal should be opened up due to their popularity among extremists.
Away from encrypted platforms, jihadists appear to find it disturbingly easy to disseminate their propaganda on the surface web. A recent investigation by the Times of London revealed that extremists have been profiting from controversial videos on YouTube for years. Some of these films feature Islamists calling on their followers to wage jihad against the West. The paper also revealed that Islamists are using Facebook to disseminate jihadi material online, leading some commentators to question why internet firms are not subject to the same penalties a tradition publisher would face if it allowed similar material to be printed.
The dark web has totally revolutionised the illicit drug market, allowing the criminals behind the trade to operate with near anonymity, while at the same time forcing suppliers to up the quality of the substances they sell. Since the original Silk Road was closed down by the FBI in 2013, scores of copycat dark web market places have sprung up, offering customers the opportunity to buy anything from cannabis to crack cocaine from behind their keyboard.
Many of these services offer eBay-style feedback systems that allow buyers to leave reviews of the quality of the narcotics they buy. This has resulted in dealers competing on grounds of purity, with many boosting the potency of MDMA tablets, and reducing the amount of cutting agent added to powders such as heroin and cocaine. Accepting payment in virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, selling drugs via dark web market places is a much safer alternative to the street for dealers, and reduces the chances of buyers being ripped off.
The Mediterranean migrant crisis has proved hugely profitable for ruthless people smuggling gangs, many of which have become increasingly sophisticated in their efforts to avoid detection and attract refugees desperate to secure safe passage to Europe. Some human traffickers have taken to posting adverts for their services on social media platforms such as Facebook. Predominately in Arabic, the ads mostly target migrants travelling from the Middle East and North Africa, and describe their services in terms that might be used by a travel agency.
The adverts are typically placed by gangs operating out of northern Turkey or Libya, and feature mobile phone numbers for would-be clients to call. Migrants enquiring about smugglers’ services are vetted to ensure they are not undercover reporters or members of local law enforcement agencies, before being presented details of special offers, such as half-price deals for children ravelling with an adult.
Some trafficking groups have even been known to use their social media channels to live blog the progress of their smuggling attempts as a way to promote their services. As well as Mediterranean crossings and onward travel to Northern Europe, the gangs also use sites such as Facebook to peddle fake travel decrements and false identity papers that can be used by migrants to make their own attempts to reach their desired destination.