How to effectively investigate within secure networks
Criminals use uncertain and distressing situations to exploit vulnerability. The pandemic environment has created prevalent vulnerability and therefore predators, cyber criminals, terrorist actors and other malicious groups have taken advantage of it. Now that much of the population are confined to their homes, cybercrime and crimes committed online are more of an issue than ever before.
In this article, Paliscope’s Joseph Jones, former British Intelligence and former UK National Crimes Agency officer, and Dave Ranner, Commercial Director of CameraForensics, outline the tangible shift in online criminal activity over the past year, due to COVID-19 lockdowns and the increase of digitisation, and the challenges this poses to investigators.
Many areas of criminal activity have felt the effects of lockdowns, remote working, and digital usage. The UK alone has seen a 31% increase in cyber scam cases during the height of the pandemic (May-June) and Europol stated how the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened cybercrime as a whole, from payment fraud to dark web activities.
In addition, John Shehan, Vice President at the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), reveals in a Forbes article that NCMEC received 4.2 million reports in April 2020 – up 2 million from the previous month due to COVID-19.
From talking to other investigators and tech providers, as well as organisations who are actively dealing with these increases, it’s becoming clear there are several reasons COVID-19 has induced a shift in online activity:
More time: Whether offenders are furloughed or just bored being stuck at home, many now have more time available to spend online in light of lockdown conditions.
More online access: Similarly, offenders are likely exploiting more online resources for their crimes as physical resources are unavailable throughout strict lockdowns. People are being forced to move their business, communication, and activities online where previously it would have taken place face-to-face.
Increased opportunity: More digitisation and people online simply mean more targets for criminals. For example, CSE offenses have likely risen as more children are online with their parents busy with remote working.
Reporting: It’s also worth noting that numbers are partially up because more individuals are online to identify and therefore report illegal activity.
Overall, there has been a significant rise in criminal activity alongside a shift in how it’s being conducted.
At a recent event held by CEPOL: European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training, all member states noted an increase in email-based attacks, presumed to be caused by the pandemic and the consequent rise of digital device-based activity. Other sources have also publicly noted signs of increased activity on the dark web, including John Shehan.
This just showcases the overall trend that’s been in place for the past few years – malicious actors are consistently getting more sophisticated in their approach, making these kinds of attacks continually harder to spot.
As an initial response, we’ve seen that CEPOL are implementing more training for agents in this area, including guidance on how to identify email-based scams and attacks. Additionally, EU member states have indicated an increased demand for multi-capability systems to address the increasing threat.
Child sexual exploitation (CSE) has always been a prevalent issue, with numbers and reports rising every year. Throughout 2020, and into 2021, CSE activity has been particularly heightened throughout various digital platforms. For example, there have been known cases of children receiving an exponential amount of explicit messages on social media platforms.
We’ve also unfortunately seen a particular rise in illegal imagery being misguidedly reshared by parents or adults, motivated by concern and disgust.
This is likely because there are more children and abusers online and using digital platforms more frequently – from gaming to social media – giving predators more opportunity to approach and groom children. Children (and other vulnerable people) may also be in lockdown with their abusers and consequently more exposed to exploitation.
There’s been a definite shift towards decentralised or encrypted messaging platforms such as ProtonMail, Rocket.Chat or Telegram. Now people can no longer communicate face-to-face as easily, criminal groups are moving to platforms where their information is hidden and won’t be shared.
The majority of people have likely noticed the proliferation of misinformation during COVID-19. Many of this is specifically COVID-related, with various conspiracy theories circulating, but many of it is unrelated, yet driven by lockdown conditions.
With more people online more often, social media information is being seen and shared more frequently. Misinformation is able to reach a wider audience than ever before – and an audience with more time to surf this information. This results in a vicious circle, where people are redirected to similar content which only reinforces their misconceptions.
Investigating online crime has a distinct set of challenges – made only more acute by remote working and the sudden increase in digital, criminal activity. But ultimately, no matter what obstacles investigators and law enforcement agents face, they have no choice but to keep working in whatever way they can.
Lack of Integration
A lack of integrated platforms has always been a big challenge. Siloed systems really limit investigators’ ability to cross-reference information, manage classifications, and connect clues. They also waste valuable time, as investigators need to switch tools to access different capabilities.
Investigators need multi-capability or interoperable systems to ease their resource burden and open up new paths for intelligence. As discussed, this issue is gaining increased notice and investigators are more consistently asking for integrated systems.
Data volume is maybe the most acute challenge to come from increased online activity. As more cases and more data comes in, investigators are faced with an overwhelming amount of information to explore and no additional resource. Not to mention the natural increase in data on the internet year on year.
The data age has truly heightened the need for integrated investigative tools – without which investigators could never get through their rising workloads. As the amount of data and information of intelligence value is likely to see exponential growth, the requirement for artificial intelligence (AI)-driven data processing and analysis platforms is equally highly likely to grow.
Secure system access
Remote working introduces various security issues for police and investigators. While every agency has a different system and security classifications, there will be an abundance of critical intelligence which can’t be accessed off-premise. This either limits investigator’s access to information or removes the possibility of working from home.
While these challenges have always been an everyday reality for investigators, the need to do something about it has only been reinforced by the turbulence of the pandemic.
We hope that the increased attention on this shift towards digitalisation, and its inherent challenges, will inspire active change – to ease operational workloads, improve interoperability, and build more agile systems. Especially if any of the changes caused by the pandemic prevail after lockdowns are over, agencies and tech providers will need to adapt to this new environment.
One thing we can be thankful for is that every piece of illegal content uploaded online is a valuable piece of evidence. Investigators now have access to a greater amount of usable intelligence than ever before as crime moves onto the internet. They can exploit everything from social media information, images, GPS and much more to tackle crime.
While increased internet usage facilitates criminal activity – it’s also a powerful resource which, when using the right tools, can equally be used to overcome this activity.