Interpol 'more relevant than ever' in a world of deepfakes and borderless crime

Stephen Kavanagh, UK candidate to lead global crime-fighting agency, says focus must be on victims

Stephen Kavanagh, Britain's candidate to become Interpol's new secretary general. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Global law enforcement agency Interpol must have a "clear vision" in place to navigate a rapidly evolving criminal landscape that knows no borders, a leading police officer has warned.

Stephen Kavanagh, the UK’s candidate for Interpol secretary general, raised the alarm over a new and worrying “data-driven” criminal age offering numerous threats, from deepfake video calls that con people out of money to using fake images of people to blackmail them.

Speaking to The National on Monday while in the UAE, Mr Kavanagh said there must be a global response to such global challenges.

“Whoever is successful will have to lead the world,” he said of the Interpol chief vacancy.

New challenges for century-old agency

The 196-member Interpol was founded in 1923. Even then, domestic police forces were struggling to keep pace with the emergence of new crime gangs involved in robbery, gambling and drug trafficking. Today Interpol is also trying to keep pace with cybercrime.

Mr Kavanagh said law enforcement groups “need to be supported to understand the implications” of the threat from AI and the ability of organised crime groups to meet in the metaverse.

He highlighted how women are blackmailed with fake images of them in sexually abusive situations, saying of the criminals: “They isolate the individuals; blackmail them; take the money and often these individuals can be so isolated from their families they lose contact or, worse, take their own life.”

Another new front opened by criminals was how scammers use deepfake videos generated by AI to infiltrate company meetings, pose as board members and dupe unsuspecting attendees into transferring money. Police are also not always the first port of call as companies sometimes use cybersecurity firms to avoid exposing vulnerabilities.

“That’s where the future of Interpol has to be – in a data-driven age where you could have a victim in one continent, an offender in a second continent and the data for those crimes in another location. No one country can be an island."

Mr Kavanagh, who met Interpol president Ahmed Al Raisi while in the UAE and praised him for his focus on technological crimes, is a veteran officer with several decades of policing under his belt. He spent more than 20 years at London's Metropolitan Police, serving during a period of intense challenges such as the 2005 terrorist attacks, and then about five years at the UK’s Essex police department.

For the past four years, he has served as executive director of police services at Interpol and praised the work undertaken with the UAE such as supporting the Cop28 process last year to tackle environmental crimes.

International effort

Now he believes the future for Interpol will increasingly involve helping member countries “join the dots” in trying to confront global crime gangs. He refers to what is known as Lionfish V, an operation in 2022 co-ordinated by Interpol and the UAE involving scores of countries, in which 20 tonnes of cocaine were seized, more than 1,300 arrests made and $700 million recovered.

“If we keep treating seizures as isolated pieces of work, then we are going to continue to fail. If we recognise that each seizure presents an opportunity to look at those global networks, then we are going to start dismantling them.”

Another was the case of a young child in Peru who was being abused. The case was highlighted by Australia and Canada, where authorities were unable to identify the location of the child. “We were able to bring their data together, combine existing data from across the world and, working with local law enforcement, that child was rescued.”

Mr Kavanagh said money laundering is simply “huge”, stating he was responsible for the establishment of the financial crime and anti-corruption centre at Interpol. He praised Interpol’s efforts at tackling the Black Axe West African crime gang’s activities in Europe and said groups such as the Kinahan Organised Crime Group rely on the “exploitation of borders; they rely on inability of law enforcement to share information quickly”.

“Interpol has been seen historically as potentially a bit of a talking shop [but it] must have an impact around these big and organised crime teams wherever they are. If Interpol is not impacting on them, then what is it there for?”

Terror threat remains

Turning to the region, Mr Kavanagh said terrorism “continues to be a threat and [is] morphing into serious and organised crime so we see drug trafficking [and] human trafficking supporting the purchase of equipment [and] training of individuals”.

Interpol’s secretary general runs the agency on a day-to-day basis, while the president plays a role in supervising the police body’s work. And it faces challenges. Two major ones are how the agency is funded and suggestions its red-notice system could be misused by rogue states.

Interpol is heavily reliant on contributions and Mr Kavanagh said funding for projects sometimes causes countries to fear "there are other strings attached”. He said he would like to make the agency “less reliant” on contributions and work more with foreign ministries to ensure funding was sustainable.

He said it was important to recognise Interpol is not “just about cops and robbers”, but building better standards of law enforcement including helping forces with less resources, about secure communities and sustainable development across the world.

When asked about the criticism that red notices – which show a person is wanted by a member country – could be manipulated, he said he was proud of his work in making the system better.

“Every year, thousands have been arrested for murder, rape, serious assault [and] fraud,” he said, adding that attempts to misuse the system are being clamped down on.

“If Interpol can’t be trusted, if innocent individuals are being arrested, then Interpol is letting global law enforcement down."

Mr Kavanagh is in the running with three candidates from Pakistan, Zambia and Brazil. Interpol's executive committee select a single preferred candidate in June and this goes to a vote at Interpol's general assembly in November.

“Interpol may be 100 years old but it is more relevant than it has ever been," he said.

“Victims across the world are the ones we should be focusing on.”

Updated: February 06, 2024, 3:47 PM