Beyond the screen
G7 Summit

Beyond the screen

Artificial intelligence is increasingly being used for corrupt means, with criminals often ahead of the game when it comes to digital evolution – and it’s having a significant impact on crime levels and policing

The persisting unrest in many areas of the world, the exploitation of social media and of the (dark) web and the possible use of artificial intelligence by criminal actors all play into the wider picture of how malicious threats relentlessly evolve.

Criminals make the best of digital tools to boost their proceeds and keep their illegal activities undetected; terrorists maximise the impact of their attacks through the web, by spreading fear and attracting new recruits.

Changes can be sudden and impactful. The pandemic challenged us in many ways, including by needing to respond to an uncharted criminal landscape, where the use of internet and online applications leapt forward to an unexpected degree.

Criminals adapted quickly and the law enforcement community was forced to chase the change, adapting its modus operandi, guaranteeing business continuity while preserving its officers’ health, quickly pooling and concentrating resources where more were needed. The mission was accomplished. Nevertheless, we need to remember the lessons we learnt, to ensure the sustainability of police work in the digital age and to concentrate on our ability to foresee changes.

Sustainability of police work – the case for biometric identification

Modern police work is based on processing large amounts of data; manual processing is not viable or actionable at scale. Law enforcement relies on tools to process large datasets and legislative frameworks that strike a fair balance between effective police work and the safeguard of fundamental rights. Among the applications that AI offers, biometric identification (including facial recognition) bears high potential for police work, from the prevention of terrorist attacks in public spaces to real-time investigations of crimes against minors. Facial recognition encompasses two distinct applications: real-time and post-event biometric identification, separately regulated under the AI Act adopted recently by the European Parliament. Real-time remote biometric identification is, in principle, prohibited, although permitted in specific exceptions.

Large-scale events, which draw vast numbers of attendees and present unique security challenges, often serve as critical testing grounds for the application of such technologies. In the context of the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, France passed a temporary provision for the real-time processing of images captured by smart cameras for the detection of suspicious events during the Olympics: this will be an important test of how AI could serve the public interest and enhance sustainable security in EU democracies.

Old habits – new threats: crime enablers

It is imperative not only to keep abreast of the new threats, but also to look ahead at those that will come. We can thus see that old elements, paired with new technologies, have become strong criminal enablers. Disinformation, a very old habit, empowered with the multiplier capacity of social media and AI features can destabilise markets (opening them to insider trading and fraud), influence elections (poisoning the democratic process) and radicalise oppressed populations (paving the way for new recruits to fall into the dark pit of terrorist propaganda). Disinformation spread with the use of large language models can mislead investigations (evidence manipulation, justice process tampering), facilitate document fraud, and result in cyberattacks against information systems, online identities theft and child sexual exploitation.

A new era for international cooperation

The global nature of the internet enables criminals to operate across jurisdictions without physically crossing borders. Only one effective weapon can overcome this threat: cooperation. Collaboration allows agencies to pool intelligence, resources and best practices, enhancing their ability to respond to threats. Shared databases and communication platforms can streamline investigations. International task forces can tackle crimes that span multiple jurisdictions, combining expertise and jurisdictional reach to dismantle criminal networks. Sharing knowledge on emerging technologies, such as AI, and investigative techniques fosters a globally competent police force. As technology continues to evolve, so too must law enforcement strategies worldwide. By uniting in their efforts, law enforcement can overcome these challenges and develop tools and strategies that protect and serve communities in the digital age. International cooperation is not just beneficial; it is imperative for ensuring public safety in a connected world.

The Way forward

One of Europol’s priorities is being at the forefront of research, as innovation is key in any future-looking scenario. AI is the new frontier and, to overcome the current challenges, law enforcement should invest in:

  • employing the array of tools AI has to offer to improve police work;
  • detecting the abuse of AI by those engaged in disinformation;
  • improving and recruiting so AI skills become part of police training landmarks – here, cooperation with the private sector and academia is essential.

Mastering new technologies is key to being on par with the threats we face. AI is a game changer; we need to embrace it responsibly, mindful that criminals have often been ahead of the game.