Commentary: Illicit Telegram chat groups expose a growing cyber threat

Commentary: Illicit Telegram chat groups expose a growing cyber threat

But crime stopping need not lose out to technology disruptions when law enforcement can employ tools and networks to tackle such activities, says Crime Stoppers’ Devrol Dupigny.

Telegram main photo blurred collage

SINGAPORE: For over a year, thousands of people hid under a shroud of encryption, sharing obscene photos and lewd videos of Singaporean women.

They were operating incognito, gathering in a Telegram group called SG Nasi Lemak, where many only identified by handles and pseudonyms. At its peak, the chat group had more than 44,000 members.

So effective were the codes that concealed them that when the authorities nabbed the administrators of the chat group in October, at least 38,000 photos and 12,000 videos had already been traded.

By then, it had also developed a second purpose – an illegal marketplace for contraband cigarettes, banned vaping devices and paraphernalia, and unregulated sex-enhancement drugs.

This case, which shocked many, is yet another sign that crime has moved into cyberspace. And the reason is simply this – technology has afforded organised crime with an unprecedented degree of flexibility.

More suspects involved in another Telegram chat group circulating obscene materials were arrested by Singapore authorities on Wednesday (Nov 6).

SECRETIVE ACTIVITIES THRIVE ONLINE

From social media platforms and encrypted communication channels, to cryptocurrency and cheaper and more advanced drone and printing technology, it has never been easier for criminals to find, and in some cases, groom victims, or to produce and smuggle illicit goods.

READ: Leaked sex tapes and child porn: A look into 13 illicit Telegram chat groups

READ: Commentary: She’s practically asking for it? Do Singaporeans subscribe to rape myths?

Photographs uploaded to our personal social media accounts can be used by others for disgusting purposes that were never our original intentions.

The fact that so much of our data is tied to digital databases and cloud systems makes us particularly vulnerable to data breaches as well. SingHealth’s loss of 1.5 million patients’ data attests to the ease of exploiting a system’s vulnerabilities and how employees too must be a strong first line of defence.

FILE PHOTO: Man holds laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture
A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. (File photo: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

The Internet poses obvious challenges for law enforcement, such as in determining who is behind an illicit group or an attack and where the masterminds are globally located, which requires expert knowledge and use of digital forensic tools.

FIGHTING CRIME ONLINE

Law enforcement need not lose out. By embracing the very same technology that criminals are abusing, law enforcement can keep up or even get a step ahead of them.

With artificial intelligence and data mining, the police can potentially even uncover trends in behaviour that can allow for pre-emptive law enforcement.

Leveraging such tools no longer remains an option but a necessity given the rapidly evolving nature of crime. Technology has not only changed how illicit trade is conducted, but has also brought about new forms of crimes.

READ: Commentary: How Big Tech giants became gatekeepers of power

READ: Commentary: Careful with photos you post online. You may be putting your digital identity at risk

The Internet has led to the proliferation of e-commerce scams, where people are conned into buying non-existent products.

Many are also susceptible to online love scams, where an attractive stranger professes his or her love for the victim before requesting for money transfers to tide them over a bad situation.

According to the Singapore police, the total amount of money cheated from online love scams surged 46 per cent in the first half of 2019 to S$17.1 million, up from S$11.7 million in the same period last year.

E-commerce scams, on the other hand, had the highest number of reported cases among all types of scams in the first half of the year, with an increase of 42 per cent to 1,435 cases, and a total of S$1.2 million cheated from victims.

Woman using a mobile phone while looking at a computer screen
File photo of someone using a phone and looking at a computer.

Meanwhile the global illicit trade is expected to grow to US$2.8 trillion (S$3.8 trillion) by 2022 from US$1.1 trillion in 2017.

A top product fuelling the trade is contraband cigarettes and tobacco, which could be given a further boost with plain packaging becoming a new normal around the world, including soon in Singapore, which may make it more difficult to differentiate the genuine and tax paid products from the fakes and smuggled good.

These days, instead of having to know who your local contraband cigarette or drug peddler is or which store sells counterfeit branded goods, it is all about knowing the right online search term or Telegram group.

READ: Commentary: Who on earth still buys counterfeit branded goods?

FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE

We need to fight fire with fire. Just as how technology has made committing crime easier, we must use it to foil the plans of criminals.

Mapping and geo-location tools can enhance surveillance and uncover smuggling routes, while facial recognition technology can help to identify criminals.

In fact, the New South Wales police has been using automated facial recognition technology to cross-reference images of people of interest against a database of custody images and live CCTV feeds.

There is also potential for law enforcement to snuff out crimes and catch them in the act, by culling and monitoring data on social media in search of patterns that may indicate an illegal trade or scam, after squaring away associated ethical questions.

China's first "cyber court" was launched on Friday to settle online disputes, as the
China's first "cyber court" was launched in 2017 to settle online disputes, as the legal system attempts to keep up with the explosion of mobile payment and e-commerce. (File photo: AFP/Wang He)

But law enforcement cannot shoulder this alone as it lacks the data, expertise and resources. That is where partnership between the private sector, academics and even members of the public come in.

SOLVING CRIME TOGETHER

Law enforcement cannot have their eyes everywhere, but there are times when witnesses choose not to come forward for a variety of reasons.

We realised that at Crime Stoppers International (CSI). Hence, we provided a channel for anonymous reporting. Today, in some jurisdictions like the Netherlands, we help provide some of 70 per cent of information that leads to a crime getting solved.

The work that our Crime Stoppers entities in various countries do with Uber to encourage drivers to report suspicious activities has also helped connect a large number of citizens on the roads who might see something to report so that authorities can be notified.

Information provided by CSI’s global network has led to the arrests of over 1 million criminals, seizure of over US$9 billion worth of illicit drugs, and disruption of the activities of many organised criminal networks.

This is just one example of how cooperation across different sectors of society can help to combat crime.

Telegram backup plans

In the case of SG Nasi Lemak, police reports were made as early as March but it took months for the police to track down and arrest the people behind the chat group. If there was some way to work with Telegram to bring those guilty to justice, the timeline may have been much shorter. 

We need social media giants to step up, to monitor for illegal activities or work with non-government organisations like ourselves and the police to crack down on them.

We need online marketplaces to weed out counterfeit products.

We also need governments, international agencies and businesses, from law enforcement authorities to the media, to come together to thwart transnational crime, which is getting more sophisticated with technological advances.

And the list goes on.

Fighting criminals is a high-tech and collaborative effort. Only then can we decipher their codes and unravel their networks.

Devrol Dupigny is the Acting CEO of Crime Stoppers International.

Source: CNA/sl

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