Decoding the evolving threats to intelligence in law enforcement
This article first appeared on Policing Insight.
Over time, law enforcement intelligence has undergone remarkable transformations. When I started my policing career, the cornerstone of every police station was a human-computer hybrid known as the Collator. Their comprehensive knowledge of local criminals’ identities, methods of operation, and connections could rival the capabilities of today’s advanced algorithms.
Instead of digital archives, we relied on towering filing cabinets brimming with handwritten information reports. And facial recognition involved presenting the Collator with a blurry CCTV image, resulting in near-instant identification of the suspect.
Undoubtedly, the intelligence challenges confronting modern law enforcement professionals bear no resemblance to that simpler analogue era. Attending last month’s National Intelligence Conference hosted by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), it was clear that effective intelligence now requires navigating complex, evolving challenges.
The conference, which welcomed leading experts from across the intelligence community to benchmark and share best practices, was dedicated to the themes of prevention and early intervention. Throughout my career, I have experienced the challenges and opportunities for law enforcement intelligence, operating on both sides of the intelligence and enforcement spectrum; intelligence has always been at the core of my work.
The aim of this article is to consider some of the key discussion points from the conference, which I attended on behalf of sponsors Clue Software, and share what I believe to be some of the biggest challenges to law enforcement intelligence today.
Encryption and anonymity in a digital age
End-to-end encryption has become a common safeguard for criminal communications, posing challenges to law enforcement in their efforts to collect intelligence and gather evidence. The complexity of encryption and counter-forensic techniques is particularly prevalent among networks engaged in producing and sharing child sexual abuse material online.
Likewise, organised crime groups involved in trafficking drugs and firearms globally have embraced securely encrypted communications devices and platforms to shield their operations, albeit with varying degrees of success.
In the realm of financial intelligence, fraud offences frequently involve cryptocurrencies and virtual assets, either as part of an investment scheme or for laundering the proceeds of the crime. Cryptocurrencies are also used for cyber ransom payments and for transferring funds that support large-scale international drug trafficking. The dark web, meanwhile, continues to offer hidden spaces for individuals to share child abuse material, offer illicit services, and trade illegal commodities including drugs and firearms.
The globalisation of organised crime
Criminal enterprises have expanded exponentially; organised crime operates from ‘local to global,’ in both scale and impact.
One example of this trend is observed in drug trafficking groups, which are actively engaged in developing the logistics and infrastructure needed to support their global trade. The local impact of globalised organised crime is also evident in the serious violence that often accompanies it.
Several examples have been revealed through the exploitation of criminal communication platforms, where heads of organised crime groups based overseas have been evidenced co-ordinating or directing attacks on rivals or debtors in the UK.
The growing threat of cyberspace
The global reach of many crime types is also facilitated by the evolution of the cyber threat. From malware used to encrypt victims’ data for ransom, to ‘industrialised’ fraud campaigns, or the theft of intellectual property, criminal networks exploit the online domain to connect with their associates or to gain access to their targets.
Collaborating seamlessly across continents, through sophisticated networks, these groups frequently target the UK with serious criminality, while operating from bases in lenient, judicially non-cooperative, and even outright hostile states.
Cyber threat actors can also be entwined with the malign activities of hostile states, increasing the complexity of the intelligence challenge.
The democratisation of emerging technologies
Ready access to 3D-printing technologies and the ease of sharing design templates online have driven growth in unregulated firearms manufacture. This provides criminals with a new capability, alongside more established methods such as the conversion of blank firers and the unlawful trade in original lethal purpose firearms.
While advancements in generative AI and large language models such as ChatGPT will bring a multitude of compelling and legitimate use cases, we are seeing signs of exploitation of such tools and capabilities for criminal purposes, including fraud.
On the horizon, quantum computing could provide game-changing decryption potential in the hands of those who would seek to exploit our personal information and data privacy.
The data conundrum
The volumes of data encountered by intelligence professionals are expanding year on year, bringing huge challenges of storage, analysis, and disclosure. This is exacerbated by the fragmentation of data, which emanates from multiple sources, making the identification of entities, trends, and patterns difficult.
Meanwhile, jurisdictional challenges and encryption can stall or deny access to important data and thereby withhold valuable insights from intelligence professionals.
Whether dealing with tsunamis of unstructured data, or data flows shielded by encryption providing only a glimpse of metadata – both scenarios are equally challenging to law enforcement intelligence teams.
Is law enforcement prepared for these intelligence challenges?
Through innovation, determination and cooperation, progress continues to be made on both prevention and early intervention, in the face of this changing threat landscape.
During my law enforcement career, I have been fortunate enough to be in the room when game-changing intelligence capabilities have been unlocked and operationally deployed with a significant, long-lasting impact. But such breakthroughs at scale are rare.
It is therefore my belief that ongoing success in law enforcement intelligence will require the community to make the best use of the breadcrumb trails of data, pockets of information and threads of intelligence, which rarely tell the whole story in isolation – but when brought together, can reveal a rich picture.
Law enforcement requires technology that supports the systematic development of intelligence from vast amounts of unstructured or fragmented data with limited resources, supported by capabilities such as automated entity recognition and alerting, entity linking, and data insights.
But effective intelligence management capabilities are only part of the issue. Due to the complexity of the mission, organisations will require a broad suite of interconnected tools, seamlessly integrated into a complimentary ‘ecosystem.’
To achieve this, law enforcement must in my view choose to partner with vendors that can demonstrate an ethos of responsible development and interoperability.
Based on my experience within both the law enforcement intelligence community and the technology sector, I am convinced of the benefits of working with technology providers that have a deep understanding of the mission and share a common vision.
So, as we embrace the challenge ahead, I will conclude with an unattributed quote that perfectly sums up why the work of law enforcement intelligence professionals is so important for all of us: “Intelligence is the backbone of effective law enforcement. Without it, we stumble in the dark, while criminals thrive in the shadows.”
Talk to our Head of Policing & Government Matt Horne and learn more about how Clue is helping organisations gather intelligence to drive preventative strategies.
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