Criminals are more technologically advanced than law enforcement, which is “too analogue in a digital age”, the head of Britain’s National Crime Agency has said.
Director General Graeme Biggar also rebuked “big tech” companies for allowing end-to-end encryption that could allow for a rise in child abuse and major fraud.
With international criminal organisations increasingly using AI and encryption for a range of crimes, the NCA chief urged more computer specialists to join his organisation.
The UK-based NCA, an intelligence-led, law enforcement agency with officers in 50 countries including the Middle East, has conducted numerous disruption operations including using online “honeytraps” to draw in fraudsters.
But Mr Biggar, speaking at the Rusi think tank in London, said “we are not going fast enough” to tackle serious organised crime.
“Elements of our response to the shift online have been world leading, but the pace of technological change is accelerating, and we are not adopting to it as quickly as criminals,” he told the think tank’s annual security lecture.
“We are still too analogue in a digital age.
“We need to move further and we need to move faster, both in the NCA and law enforcement, and in government.”
While he “strongly supported” encryption as a protection against crime, its rapid expansion by big companies is endangering their own customers.
“The blunt and increasingly widespread roll-out of end-to-end encryption by the major tech companies poses a fundamental and negative implication,” he said.
“It means they cannot protect their own customers by identifying the most egregious illegal behaviour on their own systems. If Facebook rolls out end-to-end encryption, their ability to spot child abuse will significantly reduce.”
Asked by The National if there was a suggestion that organised crime was passing laundered money on to extremist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, he responded that it had been a matter of scrutiny in recent weeks.
“Yes, that has obviously been a lot over last decades and we have been looking very extensively in the last few weeks, but we have not seen significant increase in reporting to the extent to which money is moving to Hezbollah or Hamas,” he replied.
The NCA needed more world class technology experts, he said, with the incentive that it offered a “compelling mission” alongside “the opportunity to use powerful tools in ways that otherwise would not be legal”.
While the NCA has 6,000 staff, more advanced operators were required as “our adversaries are innovating enthusiastically, at pace, and in numerous ways”.
Criminals were using AI to “code ransomware, create indecent images of children and craft fraud scripts”, and this is “not a future threat – it is happening now”.
He also welcomed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s AI summit, beginning on Wednesday, saying it was “essential that we have an international response to ensure public safety is built into the technology”.
Mr Biggar also highlighted the increasing danger of criminals downloading blueprints for 3D-printed firearms to make guns.
“We need to clamp down as much as we can and slow the growth of 3D printing,” he added.