Cyber-TNOC: Online Technologies & Organised Crime

Cyber-TNOC: Online Technologies & Organised Crime

PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with the University of Cardiff’s Professor Michael Levi to discuss his work on How online technologies are transforming transnational organised crime (Cyber-TNOC). This project has received funding through the 2018 ESRC funding call on Transnational Organised Crime: Deepening and Broadening our Understanding.

Kate McNeil: Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your research background and how you ended up exploring the question of how online technologies are transforming transnational organised crime (Cyber-TNOC)?

My undergraduate degree was in philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford. From there, I went on to postgraduate studies in criminology at Cambridge. At the time, that was the only criminology postgraduate course in the UK. During my time at Cambridge, I became interested in long-form fraud – which is when gangsters intimidated fraudsters and then offered them the advantages of economies of scale.  In this area, there were a mixture of professional fraudsters, organized criminals, and some people normally did legitimate business who had turned to bankruptcy fraud when times were hard. After learning about these things, I became interested in how the police and the criminal courts delt with this phenomenon.

Over the course of my 45-year career, I have continued to be interested in fraud and money laundering. My first research into money laundering started in 1988, when the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and the Deputy Chairman of a bank asked me to look at the public-private relationship between police and banks in light of the Brink’s-Mat Robbery, where the equivalent of 100 million pounds worth of gold bullion was stolen. That event raised several questions about the powers of the police and the obligations of the private sector.

When the ESRC asked for projects to be proposed on transnational organized crime, I got together with some colleagues at Cardiff who have worked on drugs, markets, malware and cybercrime, and we decided to look at the impact of technologies on transnational organized crime.

What has your work on Cyber-TNOC entailed?

Technology has always been part of organized crime. Imagine what a difference the telegraph made, for example, to the speed of transmission of money. So, our aim here is to think about some specifically modern and post-modern technologies, with the goal of understanding what effect these technologies might have on criminal markets. For example, we have explored the impact of the dark web on the markets for drugs, prostitution, malware, and human trafficking. We are interested in how transactions between suppliers and demanders in illicit commodities have changed because of these new technologies. For example, have technologies changed the level of violence involved in organized crime, the ways in which organized crime recruits, or the economics of criminal markets? We are also interested in the social relationships between offenders, and between offenders and victims.

We have used existing resources to set up our project, facilitating cooperation between the private sector, police, and third sector bodies. We have interviewed them about the challenges they have faced and have asked for access to datasets we might be able to analyze which could shed insight into the development of dark markets. We have also developed techniques for collecting data to assess, for example, how police raids impact the price of illegal drugs. We have been fortunate to be able to recruit people from the University of Montreal and Milan’s Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore who have helped us to develop more global datasets for understanding illicit markets. The research is still in progress, and covid-19 has affected how we are conducting the research – though we know that criminals are also now remote working!

Have you learned anything surprising from the project thus far?

One of the things that surprised me was how dark markets managed to rebound when they are intervened against. I think police raids are important for public reassurance, and they raise the risk for criminals, but we’ve noticed that even in major undercover operations where police have intervened and taken over criminal markets, other markets rebound and replace them. That leads to a certain pessimism about what we can do and makes me wonder whether we should be thinking quite hard about the role of criminal markets in finding a silver bullet for dealing with transnational organized crime. Our team has been wondering about whether we need to think about other ways of regulating illicit markets, and one member of my team has recently made the point that there’s an awful lot of research on drug treatment interventions, but there is very little research on drug markets or the criminal market.

Another thing that surprised me is the number of people contacted on social media who might be willing to lend their bank accounts to criminals, but who do not realize they are interacting with criminals who are engaging in money laundering. These people are asked to lend their accounts for money to flow through and then out again, but many have a blindness, potentially willfully so, as to how their accounts are being used.

I know that it is still early days for your project, but how do you plan on generating impact going forward?

A big part of generating impact is getting people to think about things they had not considered before. Everybody is busy trying to do a good job operationally, and the value-add that our project can provide is the additional headspace to think strategically about criminal markets on a longer term.

As we go forward, we will be hosting seminars with both the public and private sector and will engage with government and policing bodies. We will be presenting at academic conferences and writing short, policy-focused and practice-focused papers (because nobody has the time to read a kind of ‘War and Peace for Criminologists’). It’s very important for us to not just focus on academic audiences. Some of the findings are uncomfortable, because, in the case of police raids for example, people do not usually want to hear that their activities might be less effective than they think or claim. We need to manage our relationships quite carefully. We do not want to undermine processes or be negative for the sake of it. We want to find both the positive and the critical things for people to try to develop better, more sophisticated strategies, while telling truth to power.

You can learn more about Professor Michael Levi’s work in his full-length interview case study with PaCCS, which can be found below: