The future of fighting transnational crime may lie in the Internet of things

Naturalist John Muir once said, “when we try to pick out any­thing by itself, we find it hitched to every­thing else in the Uni­verse”.

As the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), I see Muir’s sentence as offering a deep insight into how transnational crimes are “hitched” together.

Transnational crimes are closely connected. Illicit drugs are smuggled by groups who may also traffic in guns, contraband, wildlife and people, with corruption as the enabler of all these activities. A devastated woman coerced to work in the sex trade may have been trafficked or smuggled long distances before being held captive. And there are many other examples.

Take almost any transnational crime and it is not practiced in isolation; instead, it forms part of a portfolio of criminality driven by greed. Perhaps the closest analogy is a large, spreading root system with a single giant taproot—profit. After all, nothing is ever undertaken by criminals, if it is not profitable.

Equally importantly, we have to recognize that criminals are creative and adaptive. Illicit drugs offer a worrying  example. In recent years, we have seen smuggling via so-called mules on passenger flights, in cargo holds, fast boats and even submarines.

Each time, the criminals are challenged by law enforcement their modus operandi adapts in terms of route, of transport, of personnel. If we accept the underlying premise of interconnectedness and sophisticated adaptation, then we must also keep changing the way we tackle crime. But in moving forward, we need to take ideas from the developments around us. One such concept is the Internet of things.

Put simply, this idea envisages the networking of all devices, systems and services, including buildings, cars, and other products, to the Internet. If you are stuck on the train, as an example, and likely to be late for an important meeting, your mobile phone can send emails ahead to those attending.

The thinking behind these improvements is that the communication of information can lead to radical and beneficial adjustments saving time and badly needed resources. Such connectivity can aid law enforcement by allowing immediate transfers of information about criminals and their behavior, but the Internet of things also contains the seeds for how we can link activities to confront crime.

What needs to be done in the future is to bring together every aspect of the global effort to disrupt transnational organized crime. This means intelligent connectivity linking organizations, regions, and actions into a single harmonious system devoted to countering every aspect of transnational organized crime.

Increased connectivity would lead to greater sharing of information, joint operations and mutual legal assistance based on the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. All of this to be undertaken in real time. Organizations such as INTERPOL, EUROPOL, and a host of other organizations including at the local level, are already carrying out tremendous work to ensure that the criminals do not evade justice.

Despite this, there is a need to go even further. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime is playing its part.

Our “Networking the Networks” initiative is connecting organizations, including INTERPOL, World Customs Organization, regional police organizations and law enforcement centers, the OSCE and others.  By doing so, we are promoting the exchange of information and intelligence, and supporting multilateral operations against the criminal networks.

We recently launched the Global Programme on Building Effective Networks Against Transnational Organized Crime to build on this work and it is proving a considerable success. UNODC is also taking this approach further by ensuring its new generation of regional programmes have connectivity at their heart and are bound to the sustainable development agenda adopted last year.

Next week, I will be in Nairobi to launch the new East African Regional Programme, which recognizes that transnational crimes are not separate endeavors, but a swirling mass of entwined activities, countries and groups.  Operating over the next four years, the programme will enhance the rule of law and human security across the Eastern Africa region, through activities tailored to combat existing challenges and address emerging threats.

Eastern Africa is a place where many criminal activities meet. People are trafficked, heroin is transited, and  Ivory smuggled to various overseas markets. Many of these markets are bound together and they allow criminals to exploit some fragile states in the region with criminal networks overlapping with terrorist cells, pirate groups and drug trafficking organizations.

Our work against these activities needs to reflect this. My vision for the future of global law enforcement involves connected activities where information sharing and operations occur at every level: local, regional and global to prevent the criminals from escaping arrest.

To paraphrase the novelist Herman Melville we are all connected by a thousand threads and our actions return to us as effects.

We need to tie these threads together, if we are to have any chance of turning our decisive actions into deliverable effects against the criminals. The Internet of things offers many insights; we need to start learning to adapt quickly.

Yury Fedotov, Executive Director, UN Office on Drugs and Crime.   


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