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Gaming could be a ‘door into the dark net’ for young hackers – warns Europol director

Addressing a wide range of issues – from cyber-crime to terrorism – in his most expansive interview to date, Europol director Rob Wainwright talks exclusively to Policy Review editor Dean Carroll

We last spoke in the spring of 2011 and cyber-crime has just emerged as a major threat to organisations and individuals. How has the situation developed further in the last two and a half years?

“Since then, we have seen an exponential rise in the amount of cyber-crime that is perpetrated on citizens, governments and businesses – and the sheer variety of attacks with the evermore innovative and sophisticated ways of scamming people and stealing their identity has grown significantly. We are seeing billions being stolen from governments through fraud.

“To give you an example, we are now seeing ransomware and cryptolock. In other words, they are sending something down the line that freezes your computer and criminals then demand money to unfreeze it. One version of that was policeransom where criminals purported to be police teams and sent messages to innocent people stating ‘you are now the subject of a child pornography investigation – if you pay an administrative fine of $500 we can wrap things up now; if not, you might be prosecuted’.

“Of course, a lot of middle-aged men who are not involved in that kind of behaviour but nonetheless didn’t want to be anywhere near it were simply paying up. In some cases, the criminals have even used my personal identity and pretended to be me. “

And in what particular European Union member states is this type of activity most prevalent?

“We are seeing this sort of scam right across Europe and right across the world – although there was one particular hacker in Spain recently. It’s an example of how the criminal threat is changing but we are responding to it.

“More generally, the level of sophistication being developed by organised crime with bank Trojans and this sort of malware is astonishing. In the summer, we worked with the Spanish again to arrest a Ukrainian cyber-crime gang that had managed to infect and take control of 21,000 servers of companies in 80 different countries. It is staggering. They then sell the stuff online to their criminal customers in the dark net.

“The internet has become a great place for hackers to do business. They sell to order. Meanwhile, organised crime is working in the same way to defraud companies and steal identities. It’s a great worry for us.”

Presumably, these hackers are highly knowledgeable and could actually earn great deals of money through legal means. Why is it that they tend to go over to the dark side?

“We are recruiting some young and gifted computer specialists to work in Europol’s Cyber-Crime Centre so some do come to work for the side of the angels but others don’t. I guess the rewards might be higher with a life of crime and some hackers are drawn to that world through associations during their teenage years of gaming before coming into contact with more serious criminal behaviour.

“Certainly, there is a community of hackers – young men and some women – who are recruited directly by organised crime groups or are carrying out hacking work to order, which is being traded on the dark net. It is part of the modern phenomena we have to deal with. We are talking about the late teens to early twenties as a typical hacker profile.”

Yes, it is very interesting that you highlight gaming as a door into the dark net. But also, isn’t there a sense that joining hacking groups like Anonymous is sexy because it is anti-establishment and while some young hackers might just be going through a phase – as all young people do, although here the stakes are much higher – others get drawn in to the point where they can’t get out again?

“Maybe and then there is the whole hacktivism environment where there is a quasi-political edge to their activities. I don’t know how much the people in the likes of Anonymous are truly committed to a political cause or whether they are just having a bit of fun by working, as you say, in an anti-establishment way.

“However, there is a wider context here seen in the Edward Snowden case. It showed an awakening of public understanding about the rights of privacy online and what the reasonable limits are for government activity should be. Some of the public reaction has been along the lines of ‘well, I didn’t know the intelligence agencies had so much capability online and I’m not sure I like that’.

“I mention that because it goes to the very heart of a dilemma of public policy that we have right now. That dilemma is – to what extent should governments be allowed to police the internet? The Snowden case shows that people do not want to give up their privacy online and that they enjoy the freedom of the internet, and the principle of anonymity online. We all enjoy that as citizens but I can tell you from a policing perspective that it is a nightmare for us to deal with.

“The TOR network, for example, is a fantastic opportunity for these criminal networks – especially those specialising in child sex exploitation material. The more we entertain the liberal notions and freedoms of the internet, the more difficult it is at the same time for the police to control the excesses of the internet.

“And I think there is hacktivist lobbying supported by many sections of the media and public at large, which wants to make the point and maintain the freedom of the internet. I am not decrying that. As a political stand, it has many virtues but we see in the law enforcement environment what the implications of that are.”

So given that these issues are now at least being publicly debated because of the PRISM revelations, is Edward Snowden a villain or a hero – or somewhere in between?

“It depends upon who you speak to but my view is that he must be held accountable before the law like all citizens. At the same time, the whole affair has at least sparked a debate in society that probably needs to be had around where the limits of government activity online should start and finish.

“It is a wonderful case because it neatly shows the juxtaposition of these two opposing forces. You have crime and terrorism undoubtedly moving more and more online. This means that police and security agencies have a legitimate need to follow that activity and, therefore, access more data online.

“At the same time, citizens have become more aware of their privacy rights and they are less willing to cede their personal data to government authorities. So you have a widening gap, which has yet to be bridged by the right kind of public debate. In the end, it is something legislators will have to decide on.”

Within that debate, social networks as well as the wider internet are spreading their tentacles into every corner of our lives. Playing devil’s advocate, do you think then that we might just have to accept that privacy becomes an outdated concept in the modern digital age?

“No, I don’t think we should. Privacy is an essential part of the internet. We have to hold onto privacy as a fundamental right for citizens. The job of police is not to undermine that privacy but to protect these freedoms so that society benefits from them.

“It is the same with European freedom of movement and the Schengen zone. That is another nightmare for police because criminals exploit that. The criminals also now counterfeit what is a single currency between many countries in the same way as they exploit the internet. These are examples of a modern globalised world, which are bringing enormous benefits for citizens but also creating opportunities for criminal activity.”

Ok, so has Europol had any involvement in the controversial surveillance programmes instigated by the Unites States and Britain?

“No, we haven’t been involved and we don’t receive those materials from the US agencies. In those terms, we are not an intelligence agency as such. We work within the police community and while we collect and analyse large amounts of data, it is police intelligence. We are one step removed from the real intelligence world, if I can call it that.”

Changing tack, Europol produces an annual report on the terror threat. The bomb explosion in Bulgaria was back in 2012 but has the threat really been nullified in the last year or so?

“It is not necessarily a reduced threat, although it is a different threat. The capacity for a spectacular along the lines of 9/11 is, perhaps, no longer there in the same way as it was 10 years ago. Instead, we have seen the franchisement of the Al Qaida message so we have different variations of the AQ core group in important hotspots such as Yemen and North Africa. That, alongside the internet again, has helped to spread this perverted message into wider parts of the Islamic community.

“That has led to the growth of the self-radicalised lone actor not acting under orders from higher command in Afghanistan or Pakistan but wanting to carry out terrorist attacks. We have seen manifestations of this in London and Toulouse. It shows that the world remains quite an unstable place in terms of its ability to still radicalise normally young men to carry out violence in a political cause.

“We are also concerned about Syria as a geopolitical flashpoint. It has attracted possibly more than 1,000 European Union nationals to become foreign fighters in Syria and having been trained they then return to their home countries in Europe in a more dangerous state of mind.”

With that in mind, this week the European Defence Agency was given the go-ahead to conduct a study into the potential values of a joint European drone programme carrying out both surveillance and military work beyond 2020. In your view, is this a good idea given the public distaste for the US drone programme?

“Any drone programme is politically sensitive and I don’t know about that report so it’s difficult to comment in detail. Although I think that with any surveillance programme likes this, you have to get the balance right between the interests of privacy and security. They are not always in opposition to each other, of course, but these instruments need to be proportionate.

“I will be interested to see how the report develops, particularly when there is a heightened public and political interest in where the parameters of privacy and security can meet.”

You have mentioned the European Cyber-Crime Centre, which has obviously been a big win for the agency. Could you just highlight some of Europol’s other big successes and where there is still work to be done?

“Yes, I’ve been director for five years now and I think we are in a stage where we are growing up as a serious police agency in the international community. We are serious in terms of our ambitions to be a global player to fight crime and terrorism.

“We have a more central, visible and high profile role thanks to the instruments of the Lisbon Treaty. Over the last four years, we have doubled the amount of information we have attracted from the law enforcement community and the number of cases we are coordinating has also doubled. We are viewed as a leading player in the European sphere.”

Some EU member states, the United Kingdom for example, take a different view and have even discussed the possibility of leaving Europol as well as the European Arrest Warrant – in order to repatriate powers. What would be the ramifications for Britain and Europe were the UK to opt out?

“It is important to correct you there, the UK does not take a different view of that. The country has been among our strongest supporters and still is, I would say. The UK law enforcement agency is the number two or number three provider of all of the intelligence we have. It is deeply embedded in our operational work. Of the 600 operations we conducted last year, nearly 300 of them had a British element.

“There is, indeed, a separate political decision which the UK government has to make about what extent Britain will be part of our future legal framework. That is a political decision to be taken in parliament. To be fair to the Home Secretary, even in her statement where she mentioned some caution she expressed it in a positive way. The UK government intends to opt in providing one or two issues can be sorted out through negotiations.

“I am still confident that the country will continue to be a leading force at Europol. If it isn’t, the Europol suffers and other member states suffer – and the UK will certainly suffer as well in its ability to fight crime.”

So it is yet another case of rhetoric over European issues from the British government?

“I don’t think it rhetoric. There is a real debate to be had in parliament. There are reasonable concerns about loss of sovereignty in these areas. Each national parliament has to come to its own conclusion about where the balance is in terms of signing up to a more integrated European effort against reserving powers at the national level.”

You refer to the importance of parliamentary accountability there. Most citizens will not be aware of Europol and yet the agency has a large budget, many staff and significant powers. Do you think being accountable through the European Parliament is enough or should you answer to the individual member state parliaments too?

“That is a good point and we do want to strengthen our accountability arrangements so I expect some changes in our next legal framework. We spend about €85m of European taxpayers’ money so we have to be accountable. We carry out sensitive tasks and collect personal data about the private lives of many citizens under controlled circumstances so we want to ensure that accountability is exercised at the national level and not just at the European Parliament.

“I have given evidence to national parliaments in a number of countries on the work of Europol but it is not yet a systematic arrangement. It is something we could make more formal in the future.”

Looking more generally at the landscape you are dealing with – who or what is the biggest criminal threat to the people of Europe today?

“It is definitely cyber-crime because of the largely uncontrolled way in which the internet is developing. New technology is being exploited by ever more enterprising organised crime groups to steal a dollar or steal an identity. There is an inability to keep up with that from the law enforcement world partly because the legislative instruments are outdated. So this is the area where all of us most focus our attention. We’ve still got quite a bit of work to do, to say the least.”

So given that the European Cyber-Crime Centre now falls under Europol’s remit as you lobbied for, what is the next step in the agency’s evolution? Where is the next frontier?

“It’s not about acquiring more land or territory. Our success over the years has come from identifying one or two tasks only that we can be the best in the world at rather than chasing 20 tasks. We want to concentrate on being the information centre for the policy community and being an operational coordination point as well.

“We turn large amounts of police data in simultaneous cross-border operations. It can’t be replicated anywhere else. And as crime becomes more global and online, we see this greater need for an international institutional element to help with information flows and turn those into major operations. That has been the key to our success and developing those capabilities in a more advanced way is what we would like to do in the future.”

In terms of the social networks, I see that while Europol has 2,800 Twitter followers it only follows 60 accounts and has tweeted just 220 times. Is that really effective online engagement or is it something you need to work harder on?

“No, it doesn’t sound very effective. You have a point. Our social media strategy is quite young and something we are still learning to get to grips with. We have found much greater success through the traditional media. There has been a big increase in the number of times we are appearing on the BBC, CNN and in serious newspapers around Europe.

“Where we have a large news event such as the football match-fixing report we issued earlier in the year, it attracted huge coverage so we are using media quite well. However, with social media I think we are frankly still learning the ropes.”

I notice you are not on Twitter yourself Rob, Is that because of the threat of hacking or are you just too busy?

“In a way, I think it’s unprofessional. I don’t want to be tweeting personal views every few minutes. If I’ve got something serious to say, I will do it in a professional way rather than through being a celebrity on Twitter.”

Is there anything else looming large on the horizon in terms of issues or cases that you would like to talk about?

“Just that the effect of the 2008 downturn continues to effect the economy and crime levels. We are seeing increasing numbers of frauds and goods for sale on the black market. Counterfeit goods with a health and safety element are of real concern.”

Such as fake alcohol and that sort of thing?

“Yes, fake alcohol, food, cosmetics and medicines. You can even buy fake cancer medication online now. Disposable income has gone down so people are more drawn to buying stuff from the black market. Whereas in the past that might have been a fake Gucci handbag, people are now buying fake medication.

“I’m not sure there is enough public awareness of the threats. It’s another example of organised crime groups seeing an opportunity and filling their boots.”

You do wonder how far the counterfeiters will go. We have heard about the fake milk and fake eggs in China. Could it ever get to that stage in Europe?

“It’s already gone that far. We have just had a conference in Alicante about fake auto parts – air bags and so on. These criminals are attempting to make a fast buck at the expense of people’s lives in some cases.”

What about the rise of these 3D printers, which could potentially be used to make illegal products or goods that are not quite what they claim to be?

“It is an in-vogue story but the threat from that is in its infancy. I’m not sure we are about to see the next terrorist bomb printed out in that way but the technology is advancing rapidly and we are seriously monitoring that here.”

One last thing, how has the Arab Spring changed the parameters of your work and the sort of cases you are dealing with?

“The turmoil of society in North Africa has led to the pushing of more illegal migrants towards Europe and we witnessed the terrible tragedy in Lampedusa just a few weeks ago. Again, organised crime has capitalised by charging people to transport them in very dangerous circumstances.

“In addition, some of the developments in North Africa have created fertile ground for Islamist extremists to recruit and train new volunteers.”

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