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Spies to help catch criminals exploiting ‘cloak of invisibility’ online

Fraudsters, drug dealers, sex offenders and people smugglers are among those operating online (PA Archive)
Fraudsters, drug dealers, sex offenders and people smugglers are among those operating online (PA Archive)

Spies will be used to help law enforcers remove the anonymity of criminals operating online in a new drive to combat growing tech threats, the head of the National Crime Agency revealed on Tuesday.

Graeme Biggar, the director general of the NCA, said that fraudsters, drug dealers, sex offenders and people smugglers were among the organised criminals seeking to exploit a “cloak of invisibility” online to target victims.

He said law enforcers had already achieved significant successes, resulting in thousands of arrests, by “turning the tech that they think is their greatest weapon against them” to remove their anonymity and enable their detection.

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But he said that his organisation’s aim was to go “further and faster” by using methods including the analysis of “bulk data” and a system in which spies, police and NCA officers could move “seamlessly” between their organisations in an intensified effort to expose the identity of criminals who believed they were protected by secrecy online.

He said that methods to achieve this would include increasing the use of “bulk data”, including some processed by intelligence agencies, to identity criminals and their networks, and the development of a new system in which spies, police and NCA officers could move “seamlessly” between their respective organisations.

In a speech at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, Mr Biggar said that as well as enabling prosecutions the tactic would also undermine the trust that organised criminals relied on when communicating with each other and be a powerful weapon for law enforcers.

Warning that “more crime takes place online or is enabled by technology” Mr Biggar listed examples including “criminals using AI to code ransomware, create indecent images of children, and craft fraud scripts” and “traditional drug criminals using the dark web to trade commodities; encryption to communicate; and crypto currency to pay” and “downloading blueprints for 3D printed firearms”.

He said that “organised immigration crime gangs” were also “using social media to advertise their services and then encrypted comms to engage with the prospective migrant.”

Mr Biggar added: “These developments depend on anonymity and trust: criminals believing they are anonymous online; and trusting that the sites they are visiting and the people they are engaging with are also criminal.

“We are having some success in removing criminal anonymity and undermining their trust in each other and criminal infrastructure. We are using the tech that they think is their greatest asset, against them.”

Mr Biggar said, however, that several changes were needed to keep pace. These included much swifter intelligence sharing between this country and those overseas to enable cross-border organised crime groups to be tackled more rapidly.

He said pay rates at the NCA, which many independent observers regard as significantly underfunded, also needed to be improved to enable it to retain staff and recruit more “world class experts” with digital skills.

In other elements of a wide-ranging speech, Mr Biggar also echoed warnings made by other ministers about the dangers posed by the plans of Facebook and other tech giants to introduce end-to-end encryption.

He said this would pose a “fundamental” threat and added: “If Facebook roll out end to end encryption their ability to spot child abuse will significantly reduce, as will the number of children we save from sexual abuse and the number of criminals we arrest on the back of their information.

“This would be tantamount to consciously turning a blind eye to child abuse - choosing to look the other way.

“It does not need to be like this. Despite the protestations of the tech companies, there are ways of providing for strong encryption and privacy, and still protecting customers and enabling lawful access."