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Combating organised crime in cyberspace

With the rise of non-state actors made prevalent by the technological advancement of information and communication technologies, organised crime has become more sophisticated and pervasive as these groups adapt to and navigate the online space. 

Cyberspace is continuously transforming the way organised criminal groups (OCGs) conduct business and, consequently, how states approach one of the most significant international challenges. 

A state that provides for its citizens should, ideally, offer security and prosperity. This is achieved through the delivery of essential services like education, health and security.

Where a state is not able to fulfil that function, whether by choice or as a result of weak governance, organised crime arises to fill in the void. OCGs can offer a range of services to individuals or businesses such as protection, contraband, and even a sense of community. Through the illegal movement of people or products, illicit activities can present harms to community health, wellbeing and the economy, thus undermining the integrity of the state and producing further opportunities for OCGs to flourish. 

Once territorial and confined by geographical restrictions organised crime has become a flexible phenomenon in both operation and delivery of services thanks to the advent of the internet. 

In 2018, Europol’s Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment identified ransomware, denial of service attacks, production and dissemination of child sexual exploitation material, fraud, malicious use of cryptocurrencies, social engineering and market networks on the ‘dark net’ as anticipated threats likely to continue and evolve in the future. 

The dark net has further nested practices of organised crime to more covert networks that may be encrypted and, consequently, harder for law enforcement to trace. It is also a ripe marketplace for the sale of illicit drugs and weapons. However, the means of trafficking – drugs, weapons and people – across borders is still very much a physical undertaking, further complicating the approach taken by law enforcement worldwide to combat this threat. State law enforcement is restricted by its territorial jurisdictions whereas the reach that cyberspace offers to OCGs is expansive and undefined by national constraints. 

So how can law enforcement successfully combat a malicious group whose online activities are not confined by state borders when states themselves are jurisdictionally challenged? 

Like targeting any organised crime – online or off – the opportunity to disrupt behaviour by reducing demand for services or increasing the risk these groups face are options that demand further refinement in the online space.

Take the legalisation of illicit substances to minimise the incentive to turn to OCGs, for example – a current debate in many Western nations. In October 2018, Canada legalised cannabis with the aim of reducing organised criminal production and sales by allowing legitimate stores and online businesses to operate in accordance with the law. Statistics Canada aimed to assess the social and economic impacts of the legalisation over the last 12 months but instead found that legalisation of cannabis actually boosted organised criminal activity. 

While there was no evidence to suggest social instability or major antisocial behaviour, sales of cannabis on the black market actually increased, with 47.3 per cent of sales still purchased illegally. This was due to high taxes applied to the products, distrust in the use of personal data by the government (and other governments where cannabis is still illegal), and a poor range of product on offer by legitimate sources. 

On the other hand, it is not simply an act of ‘cutting off the source’ of communication and shutting down sites on the internet. As was observed during attempts to disrupt terrorist propaganda and recruitment, targeted groups only move to other sites or deeper into the dark net where they were harder to trace. It is inevitable that the same migratory behaviour would be followed by OCGs.

With the majority of cybercrime targeting Australians originating from overseas, disrupting illicit activity is a challenge for both the social and technological domains in all states; organised crime does not only affect the origin state, but all states subject to supply, transit and demand. 

With half of the world’s internet users situated in the Indo-Pacific, Australia has an interest in maintaining strong regional partnerships and developing multilateral initiatives to combat online organised cybercrime – be it drugs, weapons, people, ransomware, or child sexual exploitation material. 

Madeleine Nugent is the Cyber Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. 


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