Shipments of illicit drug consignments are communicated by means of encrypted messages, electronic transfer of drug-sales proceeds are routed through different jurisdictions, using one-time passwords and codes, before final deposit in a tax haven.
New technologies are enabling drug trafficking groups to commit traditional crimes, more efficiently, and with formidable secrecy. The modern day globalized economy is dependent on advanced telecommunication technologies for all operations. Many of these technologies have been adopted by drug traffickers to make their activities secure and confidential. The pyramid-shaped structure of many organised criminal groups has tended to make way for fluid networks of cell-type structures in which the top echelons are not visible, even to lower level functionaries. For example, in the spate of recent heroin drug seizures on India’s western coast, enforcement agencies are in the dark about the identities and nationalities of the organisers. For any drug trafficking organisation, the network structure has clear advantages over the traditional hierarchy. By establishing a dense core of organisations, which is connected to a looser periphery by a multiplicity of links, identity of the key players remains unknown.
Drug trafficking, by spreading out across several jurisdictions, minimises law enforcement detection and interference. Any interception would involve multination and multiagency involvement, as no single country can claim that a particular criminal activity falls exclusively under its jurisdiction for initiating legal action. It often happens that the cultivation or production happens in one country, transporting this consignment may be through several countries, involving land, sea and air routes or by all modes, and destination will be another country. It can be the final consumer country or can be a transit country.
Drug trafficking groups utilise new technologies in two distinct ways: to ensure total secrecy of product delivery and distribution, and to protect themselves and their illicit operations from investigation by drug law enforcement agencies. For example, shipments of illicit drug consignments are communicated by means of encrypted messages, electronic transfer of drug-sales proceeds are routed through different jurisdictions, using one-time passwords and codes, before final deposit in any tax haven. An additional safeguard employed is to launch digital attacks against intelligence activities of drug law enforcement agencies, by using cyberattacks.
Drug traffickers use computers, prepaid telephone cards, broadband radio frequencies, restricted-access Internet chat rooms, encryption, satellite telephony and even “cloned” cellular telephones (so called when the identity codes assigned to legitimate customers are intercepted and programmed into illegal cellular telephones used by traffickers). Also, drug traffickers can program their computers to detect attempted intrusion and use “back-hacking” techniques in order to damage the investigating source. Such techniques are of particular value to the organisers of drug trafficking activities, who maintain a low-profile, and remain ensconced in safe territories, in order to organise and supervise their operations.
Detecting the laundering of drug-related funds has become more difficult with the advance of electronic commerce and Internet banking facilities. Drug traffickers communicate, across the globe, through encrypted social media platforms, which affords immaculate protection and privacy. China had a very peculiar case when traffickers tried to avoid detection by penetrating the Chinese Customs database to alter the details and status of a commercial freight consignment. In Australia, drug traffickers used the courier shipment tracking facility to monitor movement of their illicit drug consignments. Any delay would make the traffickers suspect that some law enforcement agency was secretly engaged in monitoring a controlled delivery operation. Both sides, therefore, are compelled to be swift, secret and add an element of surprise, in all their movements, for which, modern technologies and gadgets have to be extensively relied upon.
There are thousands of websites worldwide offering to sell illicit drugs, mostly cannabis, but also methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA, commonly known as Ecstasy), cocaine and heroin, in direct violation of the international drug control treaties. The Netherlands and Switzerland have the highest number of such websites. Sale and transportation from these websites occur round the clock, as also money transactions, involving different currencies and digital currencies.
Illicit drug laboratories are sprouting in remote locations and manufacturing a variety of synthetic drugs based on internet drug recipes. Professional chemists are no longer a necessity for manufacturing synthetic drugs, even ordinary lay people can figure it out from the internet. A simple surfing of the Internet gives detailed instructions for manufacturing a wide range of synthetic drugs, details of how to obtain internationally controlled precursor chemicals, and how to operate illicit drug laboratories.
The Internet is also a great meeting place for many drug users to contact like-minded individuals in different parts of the world and to locate safe and reliable supply sources of which the user would otherwise have been ignorant. When the approach is “virtual”, the inhibitions that might deter or frighten people, especially youngsters, in the real world are minimized, and they get emboldened to freely interact with drug traffickers and criminals.
Money laundering is an integral part of drug trafficking, and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on Money Laundering has warned that the internet would facilitate ease of access; the depersonalization of contact between customer and institution; and ensure instantaneous delivery of electronic transactions. The globalization of financial markets involving new global markets in stocks, bonds, futures, currency and derivatives has enlarged the potential field of operations for moving large sums electronically around the world with speed, ease and secrecy. Online banking has reduced face-to-face contact between bank staff and clients and, as a result, a great deal of anonymity is ensured.
Casinos are multiplying across the world and in India also, and these serve as outlets for laundering drug-related funds and other funds of illicit origin. This apart, “virtual casinos” flourish in a completely unregulated environment, thereby enabling traffickers to operate anonymously and avoid identification and prosecution. Also, there is a lot of opaqueness concerning which country’s laws should prevail in pursuing an offence, how court decisions can be enforced if the accused are holed up in alien jurisdictions, and which protocols govern cross-border investigations. Extradition proceedings often get enmeshed in unending legal proceedings and appeals, which are often influenced by political equations among nations.
Other problems arise because of the nature of electronic data. Standards of procedure for obtaining authorization to search stored data (carried out with the knowledge of a suspect) and authorization to intercept data (a covert operation) varies from country to country. As electronic data can be tampered and modified, Courts are cautious about their admissibility. If the process involves decryption, great skill will be needed to ensure that prosecuting authorities are not open to charges of manipulating evidence. Moreover, safeguarding authenticity of content and source is difficult without revealing in public court (and therefore to drug traffickers) the technologies and methods used to access the content.
The technical and resource challenges to law enforcement in tackling drug-related high-tech crime are very challenging. Updating technology implies constantly replacing equipment and skilled manpower, as also maintaining a “24/7” contact network (operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) to ensure real-time investigation. For many countries, including India, this is a major financial burden and causes hampered investigations. Many countries, because of obsolete equipment and lax laws, have become “data havens”, enabling traffickers to locate their service providers and store secret data, without any interference by government agencies.
Once the traffickers decide to adopt the electronic route, all movements get fast-tracked from A to Z.
Dr G. Shreekumar Menon IRS, PhD (Narcotics) is former Director General, National Academy of Customs, Indirect Taxes & Narcotics (NACIN).