How networking technology is catching criminals in an unprecedented way

The way that we catch criminals, specifically those participating in vast, organised crime, has become smarter. These sorts of criminals scarcely act alone. Whether it’s white-collar crime like tax evasion and insider trading, or more depraved criminal activity like nuclear proliferation, human trafficking and terrorist financing, there are networks of people behind every operation working together to ensure it is executed correctly.

New networking technologies are being used to make connections between people, places and behaviour that appear seemingly unrelated to facilitate the identification and capture of such criminals with unprecedented efficiency. 

The success of any criminal operation is ultimately contingent on the ability of its associated parties in keeping their identities hidden. This is something criminals have had to be particularly creative in doing, often making use of aliases, false addresses, burner phones and so on. However, in our increasingly digital world it has become virtually impossible for criminals to avoid leaving a trail of data wherever they go. In our interconnected world, it's harder than ever criminals to remain completely hidden.

Emerging networking technologies makes use of this abundant data, placing it into context. Essentially, the software builds a comprehensive network of people and how they inter-connect with each other. Connections might include a shared address, a history of transacting with each other or whether they have used the same ATM at the same time. These networks are providing insight with unparalleled levels of efficiency for organisations who want to protect themselves against criminal activity. Most commonly this is banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions who want to ensure their facilities are not being used for nefarious purposes, but can also be used by government bodies, national security groups or even NGOs.

One of the most common uses of this technology is to protect against money laundering, which typically involves the process of cleaning money up. Criminals are looking to turn the profits of crime into ostensibly legitimate assets, or want to obfuscate the trail following a sum of money that will later be used for illicit purposes. In this case, the software would look at all the customers of bank within the context of their network; this context can then be assessed for signs of risk or activity indicative of suspicious behaviour. It might look to see whether the account holder engages with seemingly unconnected businesses or individuals, with money moving around that network in circular patterns. Or perhaps it looks for a lack of regular activity such as everyday outgoings indicative of paying rent and utilities. Networks of customers that show enough signs of risk can be flagged for further investigation.

It’s not just about looking at those on the outside of the organisation. The same approach can be used for internal monitoring of employees for gross misconduct such as fraud, anti-bribery and corruption. Previously, bank employees have been found to be systematically siphoning money out of the accounts of vulnerable elderly customers. Banks use networking technology to look at how employees interact with their most at risk customers and accounts in order to spot unusual relationships, patterns of repetition, or activity that seems out of the ordinary. This is even being applied to protect our markets from activity such as rate-rigging and insider trading.

Critically, these networks are being used to protect everyone in society from the most heinous crimes. Often in these cases, external data, such as lists of known criminals provided by UK and US governments, will be used to identify the entire network of high-risk individuals. Identification of crimes such as human trafficking or smuggling can still be challenging as no single organisation has full sight of the activity. Common indicators include highly interconnected networks of people or companies affiliated in some way to a trading or transportation company as this facilitates the movement of people or drugs across borders.

Each use of the software will need to look for different behaviours. For example, the profile of a terrorist is very different to the examples discussed above. Indicators here could include a single person appearing to stay in the exact same place for long periods of time, such as a busy coffee shop in a high-risk target area (indicative of a person carrying out a reconnaissance for a future attack). The purchase of dual-items also raises concerns, i.e. everyday household items that can also be used in the making of bombs. The use of technology to understand how people are connected, overlaid with analytics to spot particular patterns of behaviour, is allowing investigators to find groups of potential terrorists who are using financial services to facilitate the orchestration of a terror attack.

Organised crime has hitherto been carried out successfully because it has been exactly that: organised. Their ability to hide the identity of involved parties is something criminals have relied on in keeping illicit operations hidden. Networking technologies are fundamentally changing the nature of criminal investigation by connecting people together in unprecedented ways, so that one tiny connection can uncover vast criminal operations.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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