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Foresight in the Field: How Europol uses foresight to anticipate the criminals of the future

Author

Laura Galante

Jul 11, 2023

With the rise of new digital technologies, crime is evolving in new and unpredictable directions. To re-duce their impact, it is becoming increasingly vital to anticipate their course.

The Observatory of the Europol Innovation Lab (EIL) monitors technological developments, anticipates potential future scenarios, and performs foresight with the intent to foster innovative practices in law enforcement. Horizon Future Watch asked Mark Wittfoth, who is responsible for the Observatory, and his colleague, Diederik Don, for their views on the role of foresight for the future of law enforcement.


How does strategic foresight fit into the work of the Europol Innovation Lab and Europol as a whole?


Mark: The mandate of the Innovation Lab is to identify, promote, and develop concrete innovative solutions that benefit EU law enforcement. Our team was set up to help anticipate and detect relevant emerging technological developments, so that we can identify weak signals and help Europol and the wider EU law enforcement better prepare as the developments occur.


What kind of research is the EIL currently undertaking in the field of strategic foresight?


Mark: One of the things we do is technology scanning; we look at emerging technologies and try to assess the impact they will have on the law enforcement community, both in terms of the benefits as well as the threats from criminal abuse. Our most recent in-depth report was on the impact of large language models such as ChatGPT. Together with our operational experts we tried to assess the impact that this type of technology can have on law enforcement, how they might use it, how criminals can abuse it, and this will likely keep us busy for the coming years as the technology progresses. We are planning to do a more in-depth technology scan in the second half of the year, where we try to and rank technological developments based on the impact that we anticipate that they will have on law enforcement.


How do these technologies make us rethink about the way we define crime and how to tackle it?


Diederik: I think the most important thing to note is that crime itself is as old as humanity, but the technology and the way in which it is committed is different. We try to apply our understanding of the approach to crimes with what these new technologies might enable.


Mark: Historically, criminals have always been among the earliest adopters of new technologies. Criminals are not bound by regulation or restrictions. They are very creative and looking for new ways, as Diederik said, to carry out the same types of crime just in different contexts or facilitated by technology. Again, using the ChatGPT example, within weeks after publication of the tool, there were some criminals already posting on dark web forums how one can use ChatGPT to carry out some basic cyber-criminal activity. This shows how quickly these technologies are applied. Importantly, we need to understand the technology to grasp how it can be abused, but at the same time, we also need to be able to use the same technology to investigate crimes, to analyse our data and become more effective, to keep up with changing landscapes.


What are some of the most salient trends that have been identified in your strategic foresight activities that you believe will have an impact on your work until 2030?


Mark: I think we will move away from AI being considered a singular technology, but something that really enhances and facilitates many other types of technological developments. In terms of how we can use it for law enforcement, there are numerous use cases that AI can help us with, but also how criminals might be able to abuse AI tools and new advances in, for example the area of generative AI, such as deepfakes. Another area that is not clearly defined is mixed reality, and we see that recently there is quite a lot of movement in that market. The tech sector is still investing a lot of money into this technology, and I personally believe all it takes is one breakthrough like we saw with ChatGPT and it becomes something that you know will become universal in society and consequently the demand will increase.


What mechanisms does the Innovation Lab have in place to engage with various stakeholders?


Mark: We work very closely with the Member States across the entire range of our tasks, liaising with key subject matter experts from the national competent authorities. As such, we are working with experts from law enforcement on issues such as horizon scanning and foresight, in which we can learn from each other’s expertise and pool resources. In addition, the Europol Innovation Lab is part of the EU innovation Hub for International Security. From there, we talk to other agencies such as Frontex, the JRC, the Asylum Agency, Eurojust, and the European Commission, so it is key for us to foster this collaborative aspect. The various stakeholders that we work with in foresight help to anticipate both positive as well as negative developments. We also maintain communication and collaboration with other entities in the internal security domain. Although we observe similar issues, our perspectives and priorities may differ, enriching our collective understanding and approach. This is a key added benefit of working within this network of different networks. If we identify a joint priority, then we might have a foresight report on it, for example innovative developments in the area of encryption or in privacy enhancing technologies. Then, each member contributes to the collective foresight thinking with their own work. So, we really try to share information, build up expertise collectively, and ensure that not everyone is doing the same thing separately.


As technologies become increasingly accessible, the risks of criminal misuse may also rise. How does the Europol Innovation Lab collaborate with law enforcement and security agencies to pre-emptively mitigate risks?


Mark: Our aim is to anticipate potential threats so that we can already today take the necessary steps to prevent or mitigate undesirable future scenarios. But we are also working on the more strategic level. For example, we discuss the ethical use of technology, not just the risks from criminals, but also how we as law enforcement can ensure that we consider all necessary ethical considerations when we're using technology. Our mandate is to serve the public, and for us to do so efficiently, we need to ensure that the public trusts us to protect their fundamental rights. So, it’s important for us to make sure that the ethical component has a really strong role, both in how we use technology but also in how we talk about technology. We encourage these types of debates and we try to be also role models in terms of having these on top of our agenda in the law enforcement community.


Diederik: Foresight is only really useful if you really do something with the outcomes. You have the information, but you need to make it actionable, and this is one of the challenges. We're lucky that we have a network of experts that are doing foresight in the Member States. Our mission is then to concretise the work and try to implement the future scenarios that we anticipate. That can only be done if we work together.


This is an article from the Horizon Future Watch Newsletter (Issue 2, July 2023), presented by Foresight on Demand


The Observatory of the Europol Innovation Lab (EIL) monitors technological developments, anticipates potential future scenarios, and performs foresight with the intent to foster innovative practices in law enforcement. Horizon Future Watch asked Mark Wittfoth, who is responsible for the Observatory, and his colleague, Diederik Don, for their views on the role of foresight for the future of law enforcement.

 

How does strategic foresight fit into the work of the Europol Innovation Lab and Europol as a whole?

Mark: The mandate of the Innovation Lab is to identify, promote, and develop concrete innovative solutions that benefit EU law enforcement. Our team was set up to help anticipate and detect relevant emerging technological developments, so that we can identify weak signals and help Europol and the wider EU law enforcement better prepare as the developments occur.

 

What kind of research is the EIL currently undertaking in the field of strategic foresight?

Mark: One of the things we do is technology scanning; we look at emerging technologies and try to assess the impact they will have on the law enforcement community, both in terms of the benefits as well as the threats from criminal abuse. Our most recent in-depth report was on the impact of large language models such as ChatGPT. Together with our operational experts we tried to assess the impact that this type of technology can have on law enforcement, how they might use it, how criminals can abuse it, and this will likely keep us busy for the coming years as the technology progresses. We are planning to do a more in-depth technology scan in the second half of the year, where we try to and rank technological developments based on the impact that we anticipate that they will have on law enforcement.

 

How do these technologies make us rethink about the way we define crime and how to tackle it?

Diederik: I think the most important thing to note is that crime itself is as old as humanity, but the technology and the way in which it is committed is different. We try to apply our understanding of the approach to crimes with what these new technologies might enable.

 

Mark: Historically, criminals have always been among the earliest adopters of new technologies. Criminals are not bound by regulation or restrictions. They are very creative and looking for new ways, as Diederik said, to carry out the same types of crime just in different contexts or facilitated by technology. Again, using the ChatGPT example, within weeks after publication of the tool, there were some criminals already posting on dark web forums how one can use ChatGPT to carry out some basic cyber-criminal activity. This shows how quickly these technologies are applied. Importantly, we need to understand the technology to grasp how it can be abused, but at the same time, we also need to be able to use the same technology to investigate crimes, to analyse our data and become more effective, to keep up with changing landscapes.

 

What are some of the most salient trends that have been identified in your strategic foresight activities that you believe will have an impact on your work until 2030?

Mark: I think we will move away from AI being considered a singular technology, but something that really enhances and facilitates many other types of technological developments. In terms of how we can use it for law enforcement, there are numerous use cases that AI can help us with, but also how criminals might be able to abuse AI tools and new advances in, for example the area of generative AI, such as deepfakes. Another area that is not clearly defined is mixed reality, and we see that recently there is quite a lot of movement in that market. The tech sector is still investing a lot of money into this technology, and I personally believe all it takes is one breakthrough like we saw with ChatGPT and it becomes something that you know will become universal in society and consequently the demand will increase.

 

What mechanisms does the Innovation Lab have in place to engage with various stakeholders?

Mark: We work very closely with the Member States across the entire range of our tasks, liaising with key subject matter experts from the national competent authorities. As such, we are working with experts from law enforcement on issues such as horizon scanning and foresight, in which we can learn from each other’s expertise and pool resources. In addition, the Europol Innovation Lab is part of the EU innovation Hub for International Security. From there, we talk to other agencies such as Frontex, the JRC, the Asylum Agency, Eurojust, and the European Commission, so it is key for us to foster this collaborative aspect. The various stakeholders that we work with in foresight help to anticipate both positive as well as negative developments. We also maintain communication and collaboration with other entities in the internal security domain. Although we observe similar issues, our perspectives and priorities may differ, enriching our collective understanding and approach. This is a key added benefit of working within this network of different networks. If we identify a joint priority, then we might have a foresight report on it, for example innovative developments in the area of encryption or in privacy enhancing technologies. Then, each member contributes to the collective foresight thinking with their own work. So, we really try to share information, build up expertise collectively, and ensure that not everyone is doing the same thing separately.

 

As technologies become increasingly accessible, the risks of criminal misuse may also rise. How does the Europol Innovation Lab collaborate with law enforcement and security agencies to pre-emptively mitigate risks?

Mark: Our aim is to anticipate potential threats so that we can already today take the necessary steps to prevent or mitigate undesirable future scenarios. But we are also working on the more strategic level. For example, we discuss the ethical use of technology, not just the risks from criminals, but also how we as law enforcement can ensure that we consider all necessary ethical considerations when we're using technology. Our mandate is to serve the public, and for us to do so efficiently, we need to ensure that the public trusts us to protect their fundamental rights. So, it’s important for us to make sure that the ethical component has a really strong role, both in how we use technology but also in how we talk about technology. We encourage these types of debates and we try to be also role models in terms of having these on top of our agenda in the law enforcement community.

 

Diederik: Foresight is only really useful if you really do something with the outcomes. You have the information, but you need to make it actionable, and this is one of the challenges. We're lucky that we have a network of experts that are doing foresight in the Member States. Our mission is then to concretise the work and try to implement the future scenarios that we anticipate. That can only be done if we work together.

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