Europol: DO CRIMINALS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? How technology shapes the future of crime and law enforcement

The advent of so-called disruptive technologies – those that fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another – provides criminals with new ways to pursue their illegal goals, but also equips law enforcement with powerful tools in the fight against crime. To remain relevant and effective, it is necessary for law enforcement authorities to invest in understanding and actively pursuing new, innovative solutions. Europol has published a report, which will serve as a basis for future discussions between Europol, EU law enforcement and their stakeholders.

Some of the emerging technologies include Artificial Intelligence (AI), quantum computing, 5G, alternative decentralised networks and cryptocurrencies, 3D printing and biotech. These are set to have a profound impact on the criminal landscape and the ability of law enforcement authorities to respond to emerging threats. The disruption comes from the convergence between these new technologies, the previously unseen use cases and applications, and the challenges posed by existing legal and regulatory frameworks.

The report aims to identify the security threats associated with this and points to ways for law enforcement to use the opportunities brought by these technologies to combat crime and terrorism. It also highlights the pivotal role of the private sector and the importance of law enforcement to engage more with these actors. Furthermore, it is of paramount importance that the voice of law enforcement is heard when legislative and regulatory frameworks are being discussed and developed, in order to have an opportunity to address their concerns and needs, particularly with regard to the accessibility of date and lawful interception.

Excerpts from report:

Taking the mobile leap: 5G enabled crime and policing

Despite the many anticipated benefits, 5G poses a number of challenges for law enforcement. The first set of challenges pertains to the potential impact of 5G developments with respect to the ability of law enforcement to identify and locate users. 5G technology will complicate the use of the unique mobile phone card identifiers that allow law enforcement to identify and locate devices. As a result, it may no longer be possible to carry out legally permissible, technical investigation and surveillance measures. One of the most important tactical operational and investigation tools would therefore become obsolete.

On the other hand, certain characteristics of 5G technology would also limit the availability and accessibility of information needed when conducting lawful interception. The set-up of 5G networks would mean that information is fragmented, and may not be either available or accessible for law enforcement. Law enforcement would therefore require the cooperation of numerous network providers both at home and abroad.

Other features of 5G technology would mean devices communicate directly with each other, without having to use the operator’s core network, which would further complicate law enforcement’s ability to retrieve communication data.

Finally, end-to-end (E2E) encryption protocols may be included as obligatory standards during the upcoming standardisation process (Release 16). An alternative is that terminal manufacturers will (voluntarily) implement this function. Either way, E2E would make it impossible to carry out content analysis of communications within the framework of lawful interception.

An additional challenge that 5G technology presents for law enforcement comes as a result of the virtualisation of physical parts of the network, known as network functions virtualisation (NFV). Existing special personnel and infrastructural security measures to protect the confidentiality of surveillance measures by the providers, for example spatial security measures, access checks etc., will be nullified. This means criminals can employ or execute attacks to access and even alter telephone numbers (target lists) which are to be monitored.

The potential challenges for law enforcement as a result of developments within the area of 5G do not appear to be a priority for developers. Therefore, keeping track of 5G developments and ensuring that lawful interception by design becomes (and stays) part of that evolution will require significant effort.

Law enforcement must continue to engage with providers and contribute to developments in the area of 5G through stronger representation of law enforcement interests in the international standardisation bodies (in particular 3GPP) and in the EU institutions (e.g. the European Commission, the JHA Council, the European Parliament) in order to communicate the views and concerns of European law enforcement authorities and their partners.


In the field of cybersecurity, AI is a double-edged sword: it can be greatly beneficial to increase the security of devices, systems and applications, but can also empower those who seek to attack systems and networks and thus become an advanced tool in the arsenal for cyber-attacks.

AI technology is also likely to have implications for traditional organised crime and terrorist threats. The use of unmanned vehicles which rely on AI planning and autonomous navigation technologies could increase the success rate of trafficking activities9 . They may also be used by terrorist actors to carry out attacks, either by delivering explosives or by using self-driving vehicles as weapons10.

IoT devices may also pose a threat that goes beyond the digital world. As IoT devices find applications in industry and infrastructure, and as IoT technology provides the building blocks for smart cities, cyber-attacks may become an increasingly physical threat24. For instance, attacks on critical infrastructure enabled by IoT technology, such as industrial control systems across the energy and water industries, have the potential to disrupt power and water supply operations25. More recently, a number of companies and national space agencies have been exploring IoT applications in space (e.g. in satellites and space ships)26. Although we are still some way from IoT in space becoming a mainstream technology, the spread of IoT devices to space may provide further opportunities for malicious actors to target satellite infrastructure, to either manipulate or disrupt their operations.


One microbe makes all the difference – the implications of biotech for security:

Beyond using biological substances as weapons for terrorist purposes developments in biotechnology can be used by criminal actors for monetary gain. Combined with more traditional cybercriminal means, actors could hack corporate and government databases to steal genetic codes and use it to replicate biologically produced drugs.

Predictive policing

While several EU countries have already begun to implement predictive policing solutions, many such projects have recently attracted public scrutiny due to ethical and data protection concerns46.

Reuters reports: Catherine De Bolle, head of the European police agency Europol warned in an interview that law enforcement agencies are at risk of falling behind the curve on technology, putting them at a disadvantage to criminals using the dark web and crypto currencies. European law enforcement agencies are set to lose the ability to tap criminals’ mobile devices with the launch of 5G technology. Currently European police authorities are able to listen to and track wanted criminals using mobile communication devices on the 4G network, but “we cannot use them in the 5G network,” De Boll said.

Agencies were brought into talks on the 5G transition among tech companies and policymakers too late. That meant that officials were now being forced to seek ways to limit the damage when police are stripped of critical surveillance capabilities under 5G.

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