Online is the New Frontline in the Fight Against Organized Crime

Criminals are exploiting advances in technology to drive serious and organized crime, the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA) says in its 2021 National Strategic Assessment (NSA) – with increased online usage leading to a rise in offending.

Released on May 25, the report uses intelligence from across law enforcement, government, the third sector and private industry to set out the U.K.’s understanding of the threat posed by organized criminals.

The NSA says the smuggling and distribution of guns and drugs; the sexual abuse of children; cross border trafficking and smuggling of people; exploitation of individuals; industrial scale frauds; ransomware attacks and the laundering of dirty money in and through the U.K. are causing harm to communities on a significant scale.

The past year has seen huge changes in U.K. society: Covid-19 has changed the landscape and the NSA highlights that organized criminals have adapted their methods to survive. In particular, offenders have turned to online spaces, increasingly using emerging technologies to commit crimes at scale and avoid detection.

Ransomware attacks have increased in frequency and impact. It is estimated 50% of all ransomware attacks included a threat to publish stolen data and over the last year there were £3bn of estimated fraud losses for U.K. individuals and businesses, but NCA says an accurate figure is constrained by significant under-reporting.

The dark web remained a market where large numbers of offenders traded illegal commodities such as firearms and drugs and offenders have increasingly turned to both specialist and commercially available encryption tools to hide their communications. Criminals increasingly used cryptocurrencies to facilitate money laundering, at least in part because the pandemic made it harder to move cash.

And criminals continue to use technology to exploit children at scale. Online exploitation has been shown to enable offending in the real world, with the online grooming of children leading to physical abuse and the large scale blackmailing of children to abuse themselves. The assessment concludes that despite significant operational and policy responses, the child sexual abuse threat continues to grow, exacerbated by rising online activity.

This year the NSA includes an update on the numbers of individuals involved in serious and organized crime (SOC) in the U.K. The latest assessment shows that a minimum of 69,281 individuals in the U.K. are involved in SOC across all threats except child sexual abuse.

Additionally, the assessment estimates there to be between 550,000 and 850,000 people in the U.K. who pose varying forms of sexual risk to children. This range, which is not comparable with last year’s figure, was calculated using a new, exploratory methodology following the NCA’s commitment in 2020 to evolve its understanding of the number of offenders.

While the NSA highlights that the environment in which the NCA and partners operate has become more challenging as criminals adapted during the pandemic and exploited rapid advances in technology, the NCA has also had its most successful 12 months for disrupting key threats, including:

  • The Agency’s leadership of Operation Venetic – the U.K. law enforcement’s response to the takedown of encrypted comms platform EncroChat – led to 1,550 arrests, the seizure of 5.8 tonnes of class A and B drugs, almost £57millon in criminal cash, 115 firearms and 2,879 round of ammunition.
  • More children safeguarded than ever with the NCA leading the national response to online child sexual abuse in collaboration with policing and other key partners – resulting in the safeguarding of nearly ten thousand children in the first nine months of 2020/21 and more than 7,000 arrests, including that of David Wilson who targeted more than 5,000 boys worldwide and was jailed for 25 years in February 2021
  • The seizure, forfeiting or restraining of more than £112m and 145 tonnes of drugs globally.
  • The seizure of 416 firearms abroad from individuals and supply networks with the capability/ intent to import firearms into the U.K.
  • Stopping a cyber-extortion attempt and bomb threat against the NHS by a criminal seeking a £10m Bitcoin ransom. He was caught and jailed.
  • 90 investigations into modern slavery and human trafficking with 100 suspects arrested and 475 victims identified, and a 7% jump in the number of rescued trafficked victims from 657 in 19/20 to 701 in 20/21.
  • Organized immigration crime arrests were up to 103 in 20/21 compared to 69 in 19/20.

NCA Director General Dame Lynne Owens said: “Over the next year the NCA will continue to adapt: embracing ever stronger collaboration with partners, employing innovative approaches to intelligence collection and deploying our full range of capabilities to disrupt high-harm criminality impacting on the U.K.

“But while the NCA will continue to lead the fight to cut serious and organized crime, it is imperative that technology and social media companies match this intensity, building in safety by design and closing down all avenues for offenders to exploit their platforms. In particular, we must move to a place of zero tolerance for the presence of such material online in order to raise the bar to offending and, most importantly, protect children.”

Read the full strategic assessment at the NCA

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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