INTERVIEW: Technology ‘supercharging illicit economies’ in Southeast Asia
Organized crime gangs in Southeast Asia are migrating operations to remote areas of the region where the rule of law is absent and are using technology to lead what a senior official at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is calling the “supercharging of illicit economies”, including expanding the trafficking of drugs and people as well as money laundering and fraudulent ‘scam’ activities.
UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Jeremy Douglas, explained to UN News how technology is changing the landscape of transnational organized crime in the region.
Jeremy Douglas: Transnational organized criminals are innovators, they have always used technology to do business. However, with the acceleration of technology, particularly cryptocurrencies, online gaming, marketplaces and recently AI, we're seeing that they are quickly adopting and using these different technologies to create new business opportunities in the region.
We've seen this most particularly when it comes to money laundering, especially through casinos, some of which are fundamentally operating as banks for criminal transactions.
UN News: What technologies in particular are organized crime groups using?
Jeremy Douglas: They're using a variety of cryptocurrencies in online businesses and marketplaces, both on the publicly accessible clear web and the dark web, to generate and mix money, and to move commodities. They're using a range of social media apps to market goods and to operate different businesses, including the trafficking of drugs and precursors, and for human trafficking. At the core it's all about profit, and these technologies allow them to generate and move large amounts of money and value very quickly.
UN News: How troubling is this development?
Jeremy Douglas: It's troubling on many levels. The capacities of organized crime groups are often far ahead of the governments in the region, particularly of the less developed countries. And criminal groups are migrating operations to locations where they can capitalize on vulnerabilities. It's going to be a long period of catch-up with the technology advancing and accelerating change in a whole range of transnational crimes.
UN News: How have these developments in technology changed these illicit businesses?
Jeremy Douglas: It depends on the illicit business, but, for example, we've seen online marketplaces that are fronts for trafficking in human beings; people being bought and sold online on Facebook, in Telegram groups and in the dark web.
It is most pronounced is in relation to the scam centres, often located alongside casinos, or obscure hotels or guarded buildings where people have been trafficked to work cyber-enabled scams and financial fraud. So, in this sense we are seeing a convergence of crimes.
Money laundering is also taking place in new ways which are accelerating the expansion of illicit businesses. For example, the trafficking of drugs with money moving through or being invested in casinos or reinvested into innovations in drug production or precursor chemical production.
Fundamentally, what we are seeing is the supercharging of illicit economies within the Mekong subregion of Southeast Asia.
UN News: How are criminal networks able to flourish with such impunity?
Jeremy Douglas: They are basing operations in parts of the region that are autonomous or semi-autonomous, often in border areas far from major capital cities, basically in places where the rule of law is incredibly weak or corruptible and where there is limited authority to step in and stop them; in some extreme cases to areas which are actually under the control of armed groups, for example, in northern Myanmar.
This is posing a distinct challenge for the governments of the region because how do you confront something that is in a place you don't control?
UN News: How are States adapting to the threat?
Jeremy Douglas: It really depends, as this is a region of vast diversity, with some of the highest capacity states in the world within proximity of some incredibly low-capacity states. Some are trying to protect themselves, others are not really adapting as they are under-resourced.
It is also so difficult to understand these crimes; the technologies needed to analyse and counter these crimes are also very sophisticated.
So, there's a knowledge and technology gap on the State side that needs to be addressed and resourced quickly, while criminal networks are using technology to innovate and develop rapidly.
UN News: What measures can be taken to tackle this issue and how is UNODC involved?
Jeremy Douglas: First and foremost, UNODC is helping countries and authorities to understand these crimes. We're carrying out analysis to inform our understanding, thinking and programming, while at the same time we are helping governments to understand the challenges that they face.
Our discussions with governments started as we were looking at addressing the drug trade and associated financial flows, but as criminal networks have matured and innovated we have been looking more at the convergence and evolution of crimes.
Part of our approach has been to bring countries to the table to talk about the issues to set the stage for responding, and we've recently agreed on a plan of action for the ASEAN region and China to address a range of aspects of criminality in an integrated way. At the same time, we're talking with governments in Southeast Asia, one-on-one, about the situation and the needs and capacity gaps that they have.
It is extremely important to bring States together so they can agree quickly on the actions they and the region need to take, and how the capacity gaps can be addressed.
UN News: What could happen if the issue is not addressed?
Jeremy Douglas: If the absence of rule of law in the places where these businesses are operating is not addressed, then we're going to see these criminal operations continue to grow, to metastasize. They will have greater global reach and an increased ability to defraud people or worse in other parts of the world.
As these criminal networks expand and become more sophisticated, they will also become very powerful and governments may lose control in some parts of the region, particularly where non-state armed groups are entrenched. This will impact the wider region and further afield.
We really need to ensure that this issue is addressed quickly, and in a holistic, strategic way.