report focuses on three technologies—encryption, blockchain and 3D printing—and
how they benefit criminals and law enforcement
tension this creates can be resolved on the enforcement side with cooperation
KONG SAR – Media
OutReach – 17 March 2021 – Advances in technology bring many benefits,
as the speed of development of the covid-19 vaccines demonstrates. But they
also create new tensions across a host of areas. Unintended
consequences, unexpected benefits: Technology, crime and illicit trade, a report from The Economist Intelligence
Unit, supported by Philip Morris International, explores those tensions across
three technologies: encryption, blockchain and 3D printing.
Encryption is both a technology that
protects legitimate interests and one that is open to abuse by malicious actors.
Law-abiding citizens value the protection offered by encryption to safeguard
privacy in their daily lives; criminals also value it for safeguarding their illegal
activities and identities.
The private sector has so far remained
steadfast in their refusal to share encryption keys with governments and law
enforcement. There’s little to suggest that stance is going to change soon, if
ever, since any relaxation is likely to quickly result in users migrating to
Despite its libertarian origins, blockchain
may emerge as a leading enforcement technology for combating illicit trade. Distributed
ledgers can enhance authenticity through a verifiable digital footprint for
barcodes, serial numbers or cryptographic seals, making it far easier to
identify fakes and counterfeits at every step of the supply chain.
There were concerns in the early stages of
adoption that the anonymity granted by blockchain would facilitate greater
criminal activity, especially in the area of money laundering. The evidence
that existed at the time supported those concerns. Since then, however, studies
have found that only 2% of bitcoin transactions can be tied to illicit activity
and a 2020 survey of anti-laundering specialists predicted a decrease in use of
cryptocurrencies for the same purpose.
Much has been made of the criminal
potential of 3D printing. Conventional wisdom says 3D printing is a problem for
law enforcement to manage, rather than a tool to be leveraged, particularly
given its can be used to print weapons. Private sector firms and customs
agencies around the world are developing 3D printing tools to turn the tables, such
as tracking the distinct “digital fingerprints” left by individual printers and
creating replicas of legitimate goods to spot counterfeits.
Chris Clague, the editor of the report,
says: “For all the benefits technology can bring to legitimate society, each
new advance creates new opportunities for criminals to exploit and that of
course include the international terrorist organisations and transnational
organised crime networks that engage in illicit trade. As always when it comes
to illicit trade, there are examples of cooperation and trust-building between
the private sector, governments and international enforcement agencies, but there
is still a lot of work left to be done.”