While it’s hard to find any bright side to the global pandemic, no one can deny that the outbreak of COVID 19 was an engine of change. The race to find a vaccine forced pharmaceutical companies to innovate on the fly. The fact that we now have multiple vaccines and tens of millions of doses being distributed worldwide is a testament to mankind’s ability to transform quickly to meet a global challenge.

International Criminal Police Organization Logo (Credit: Interpol.int).

In a similar fashion, the pandemic forced law enforcement agencies to pivot overnight from being office-centric to a remote-work environment. Many hands made this possible, but in the Digital Intelligence world, one organization has been a driving force for digital transformation worldwide. That organization is the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL).

INTERPOL is an inter-governmental organization comprised of 194 member countries whose mission is to help law enforcement agencies around the globe make the world a safer place.

A Force for Change

While INTERPOL does not conduct criminal investigations on its own, the aid and resources it provides law enforcement agencies around the world are invaluable. INTERPOL manages 18 police databases containing a wide variety of information on crimes and criminals—names, fingerprints, stolen passports, and more—that member countries can access in real-time. (Their stolen and lost travel documents database alone contains more than 95 million records.)

Members can also communicate with each other via a secured communications system called “I-24/7,” so if the FBI is tracking a terrorist in Italy, they can communicate with police organizations in that country to determine who has jurisdiction over terrorist cases to expedite investigations and collaborate to bring criminals to justice.

INTERPOL’s support structure is wide and deep and includes forensics, analysis, and assistance in locating fugitives around the world. And while INTERPOL is involved in crimes of all types, the three major global initiatives it prioritizes are terrorism, organized crime, and cybercrime.

Credit: Interpol.int

Training is also a critical part of what INTERPOL provides to ensure that investigating teams everywhere can maximize the services they offer efficiently. Perhaps most importantly, INTERPOL keeps a constant pulse on crimes through research and development to keep law enforcement agencies up to speed on the latest trends that may impact future investigations.

Dr. Madan M. Oberoi Executive Director of Technology & Innovation at INTERPOL. (Credit: bankinfosecurity.com)

Dr. Madan M. Oberoi, Executive Director of Technology & Innovation at INTERPOL was able to bring us up to speed on how INTERPOL is harnessing the power of digital technology to move cases forward. Dr. Oberoi has an impressive background having worked with a number of international organizations including the Delhi Police, the UN mission in Bosnia, the UN mission in Kosovo, the Arunachal Pradesh Police, the Central Bureau of Investigation of India, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Indian Cybercrime Coordination Centre. He is a Fulbright Scholar in cybersecurity and holds a master’s degree in technology and a Ph.D. in cybercrime.

In his current position, Dr. Oberoi is responsible for three directorates—the Information Systems and Technology Directorate, the Innovation Centre, and the Capacity Building and Training Directorate.

The Information Systems and Technology Directorate manages INTERPOL’s IT infrastructure, which includes their network of 194 member countries and different offices across the globe, as well as INTERPOL’s 18 global databases and three data centers.

“There’s no category of crime which is not impacted by technology today.”

The Innovation Centre, which is based in Singapore, includes four labs: the Digital Forensic lab, the Cyber and New Technology lab, the Futures & Foresight lab, and the Adaptive Policing lab. The center is responsible for envisioning what the future of policing worldwide may look like and preparing global police forces to be ready for the changes to come.

INTERPOL’s Innovation Centre, which is based in Singapore, includes four labs: the Digital Forensic lab, the Cyber and New Technology lab, the Futures & Foresight lab, and the Adaptive Policing lab. (Credit: jfsdigital.org)

The Capacity Building and Training Directorate is involved in all kinds of training—all focused on building the capacities of member countries.

The pandemic has been a huge driver for INTERPOL and the member countries it serves in terms of the digital transformation that has taken place in the last year. Because member countries were forced to pivot quickly as a result of the pandemic, this actually opened up a number of opportunities to push for change.

Organizations that were under-resourced or afraid to move boldly into the Digital Intelligence age have made the leap. And INTERPOL has been offering support to these transformations at every step from planning and implementing Digital Intelligence strategies to providing training to get agencies to more efficiently use modern digital technology solutions.

“I don’t see anybody being able to investigate any case in the future without the use of digital investigation tools.”

Dr. Oberoi and his team have been instrumental in helping organizations transform by hosting “Virtual Discussion Rooms” for member countries. In these virtual discussions, INTERPOL’s Strategic Innovation group leads weekly discussions, which allow member countries to exchange ideas on the most important trends affecting them.

Interestingly, digital transformation was at the top of the discussion list to kick off the series. And while INTERPOL is not prescribing one set model for everyone to follow, they are facilitating discussions that allow member countries to share best practices and experiences so that everyone can learn together and build on one another’s expertise.

How Organizations are Transitioning

While the pandemic was the inflection point for change, the growing rise in demand for Digital Intelligence has been an underlying factor driving digital transformation for some time. (Digital Intelligence is the data collected and preserved from digital sources and data types [smartphones, computers, and the Cloud] and the process by which agencies collect, review, analyze, manage, and obtain insights from this data to more efficiently run their investigations.)

Agencies have all had to come to grips with growing numbers of devices tied to investigations, mountains of data to analyze, and the need to ladder everything up to an overarching digital strategy and platform to accelerate justice, simplify workflows, and ensure data integrity and privacy.

In working with agencies worldwide, Dr. Oberoi and his team have found that there are some areas where it’s quite easy to facilitate digital transformation and others that are more difficult. For instance, many routine administrative functions lend themselves easily to digital transformation as do many situations where collaboration and sharing of information in cases is concerned.

INTERPOL manages 18 police databases containing a wide variety of information on crimes and criminals worldwide. (Credit: ewn.co.nz)

Collecting and analyzing digital intelligence is another prime area where DI solutions are working well. Still, while technology can enhance workflows and accelerate time to evidence, there is still no substitute for human intelligence and boots on the ground at crime scenes.

Dr. Oberoi sees the necessity to transform as highly important because criminal activities are moving into the digital space at a rapid pace. Human intelligence “is a very important element,” Dr. Oberoi says. “But technical intelligence has become very important [as well] because our adversaries are using more technology.” This shift in criminal activities is changing the way INTERPOL and the agencies it serves are looking at workflows. Here again, the impact of the pandemic is obvious.

2020 saw a drop in “physical crimes” where someone is physically robbed, a purse snatched, etc. Considering many countries were imposing lockdowns, the drop in physical crimes came as no surprise. At the same time, however, cybercrimes skyrocketed globally.

With so many people working remotely, more people were online than ever before. Unfortunately, many were unaware or lacked the necessary skills to protect themselves from cybercrimes, and criminals were quick to exploit these weaknesses.

INTERPOL is involved in crimes of all types. The three major global initiatives the organization prioritizes are terrorism, organized crime, and cybercrime. (Credit: euneighbours.eu/)

Dr. Oberoi was quick to add that although physical crimes are down and cybercrimes are up, it’s probably not the same criminals shifting from one crime type to the other. Physical crimes may pick up once pandemic restrictions are lifted, and people begin traveling more. Those who have found that cashing in on cybercrimes can be highly lucrative, however, are probably here to stay, which is why INTERPOL is working hard to help agencies get the digital training and resources they need to stay ahead of the curve.

Solving the Big Data Problem

Data overload is one of the biggest challenges INTERPOL’s member countries are facing, but the amount of data available also presents an opportunity. Never before have agencies had so much data at their fingertips. The opportunity, as Dr. Oberoi sees it, is in finding a way to “filter the noise out of that and focus on the right information.”

Data analytics is clearly the solution here, but Dr. Oberoi said that agencies really need to understand the basics of what kind of data they are dealing with first and how it can be helpful in expediting justice before they can begin to apply analytics. “No amount of AI will be able to replace human intelligence to look into how this data can be played with,” Dr. Oberoi said. “Technology is definitely helping there, but may it not be sufficient by itself. It has to be coupled with the human expertise of dealing with data.”

“Technology is definitely helping,” Dr. Oberoi said, “but it may not be sufficient by itself. It has to be coupled with the human expertise of dealing with data.” (Credit: Interpol.int)

When it comes to handling large quantities of data, however, Dr. Oberoi sees AI-based platforms as being critical. “We are setting up our own AI-based platform for data analytics within INTERPOL. We should be able to ingest data [structured or unstructured] from different devices….And we should have AI-based tools, which can help us in making sense of that data.”

“The use of [such] tools also boosts our own insights. For example, my natural intelligence per se may not be able to imagine a particular perspective. But when tools provide those kinds of insights and perspectives, I start seeing them. So, it is not only that my intelligence is put on top of the AI, but that AI also provides me some unique perspectives which improve my own intelligence. So it is a kind of interactive play between the two.”

Analytics solutions powered by AI are providing those unique insights and allowing investigators to connect disparate bits of evidence that might have gone unnoticed by human eyes. They are also providing the means to create reports easily to share findings to boost inter-agency collaborations.

INTERPOL does not recommend a single solution to digital policing. “We do not prescribe anything,” Dr. Oberoi said. “We just enable members to share their models with each other. So there is no INTERPOL model for dealing [with large quantities of data]. We also are one of the users.

“We use the tools, and our membership is also using them. So we learn from them, and they may learn from our experience also. So it is not a prescriptive nature of our relationship, more of a collaborating nature, I would say.”

Preserving Privacy

Issues about how the data is handled to protect the digital chain of evidence as well as privacy issues, which vary greatly from country to country, are also coming to the surface. This is another area where technology is helping.

When asked how agencies around the globe are dealing with data privacy Dr. Oberoi said, “most of them are shifting to privacy-preserving data analytics, and that’s how they are trying to manage the privacy issue. Now there are different models, in terms of how we can process such volumes of data without violating the privacy conditions. In that context, the biggest thing was to define our own privacy standards, which have to be very clear.

“And then those privacy rules have to be built into our platform so that we do not cross the red lines with regards to privacy. This is where technology really helps. When we are dealing with such huge volumes of data, no individual will be able to take care of all the privacy conditions, so this is where the machine-based enforcement of rules will be very important.”

Since AI-based analytics solutions, like those offered by Cellebrite, can be pre-programmed, agencies can use pre-set capabilities within the tool to ensure privacy by selectively filtering the search criteria to only look for certain types of information.

Winning Back Trust

Data privacy concerns and the lack of trust that communities have in law enforcement agencies is a key issue in most countries. Agencies must help communities understand that they’re using these tools to benefit and protect citizens and that they’re only focusing on certain kinds of information relating to criminal activities and within the legal frameworks.

Dr. Oberoi agreed saying “this is precisely what I have proposed that the trust is the most critical element, because otherwise, nobody will share their data.… So there have to be audit trails. There have to be logs, which we can use to showcase that no privacy conditions were violated. Machine-enforced privacy rules add an additional layer of trust.”

The Road Ahead

As he looks ahead, Dr. Oberoi only sees the interconnection between technology and crime growing.

INTERPOL’s member countries have more data at their fingertips today than ever before. (Credit: Interpol.int)

“I would say that there’s no category of crime which is not impacted by technology today,” he said. “None. And I say with total unambiguity that there’s no crime which is unimpacted by technology. And I give this example: Even if today we have a case of let’s say, suicide, even then we would like to search the iPad, the mobile phone, the laptop of that person who has committed suicide. Did they leave a suicide note? What were the circumstances? So even if crimes may be 100-percent physical in nature, we are also looking at digital elements.”

Dr. Oberoi used counterterrorism as another example. “The use of social media. The use of cryptocurrencies. Now some cases have reported the use of drones. And the use of basic telephones. The encryption-based communication services. All these things are tools that most criminal elements are using today. So there’s hardly any area that is not impacted by technology, and more so by digital technology.

“Personally I believe that ‘cybercrime’ will cease to exist as a category, because there will be hardly any crime which does not have a cyber element, so ‘cybercrime’ would become synonymous with ‘crime.’ That is my understanding of the way things are proceeding. There will be hardly anything that is not cyber in some form or another. It may not be the target itself, but cyberspace may be used as a tool/facilitator of crime.”

In looking ahead to future investigations, digital tools and the training to use them effectively will be crucial. “I don’t see anybody being able to investigate any case in the future without the use of digital investigation tools,” Dr. Oberoi said.

Training Is Key

Training will also be key to policing in the future and while Dr. Oberoi sees a whole new generation coming into law enforcement that is far more comfortable using digital technology, both young and old need training.

Understanding the importance of keeping employees well trained, INTERPOL has established the Virtual Academy in order to provide training to a larger audience. (Credit: Interpol.int)

“We are seeing a generational change in the police forces,” Dr. Oberoi said. “Today the new recruits coming into police forces across the world are very comfortable with some of the technologies… But that cannot be said of some people who have already spent 20 or 30 years in service. To them, it is not natural. So more training is needed for these people so that they can build on their experience and start being able to appreciate the digital space.

“At the same time, the new recruits also have to be trained in terms of more effective and efficient use of digital tools. They can go with their normal intuition, but that may not be sufficient because what we are also seeing is that their adversaries are making much better use of technology than police forces.

“So it is not that they have to do better than the older generation of police officers. They have to do better than the criminals … they have to counter the use of digital space and the use of digital tools by criminals. That’s the challenge.”

INTERPOL is meeting global training challenges through Small Private Online Courses (SPOC). “We need some basic training for everyone, “ Dr. Oberoi said. “And that’s where we have to use technology to change the scale and the way we deliver training.

“No amount of AI will be able to replace human intelligence to look into how this data can be played with. Technology is definitely helping there, but may it not be sufficient by itself. It has to be coupled with the human expertise of dealing with data.”

“In INTERPOL now, we have shifted and established the Virtual Academy precisely for this purpose, so we can address a large number of trainees at their own space, in their own time zone, in their own comfort level, for their own training requirements.”

Virtual training not only reaches a larger audience effectively but also provides cost savings as more trainees can be educated at scale.

Collaboration is Critical

Having more openness and promoting collaboration is also a key goal for Dr. Oberoi and INTERPOL. “Our responses today have to be more tuned to the digital nature of crime and the digital nature of evidence, which is very difficult to handle with the current territory-based responses,” Dr. Oberoi said.

“Jurisdictional responses tend to limit our reach. So there have to be more multi-jurisdictional approaches, more spirit of collaboration, which does not naturally come to us. As police officers, we tend to hold our information very close to ourselves. And this is where we have to unlearn that and adapt ourselves more to this.

Investing in the “people” part of the equation is critical to fighting crimes in the future and winning back community trust. (credit: interpol.int)

“Our ability to adapt to the changing nature of crime [and] changing nature of evidence, which is shifting towards digital, is critical.”

As he looks to the future Dr. Oberoi said INTERPOL is already evolving and adapting to change. “We are already undergoing transformation, whether it is in digital space, in our funding models, or in terms of our collaborative working. Those changes are already happening. So I see it [the future] more as strengthening these changes and making them more long term and more rooted in our system, so that they do not remain pandemic-induced changes, but become more permanent changes.”

Investing in the “people” part of the equation is critical to fighting crimes in the future and winning back community trust. “Invest in the skill sets of your staff,” Dr. Oberoi said. “Prepare them.”

“The critical element, which everything has shown us, is the human element. Technologies change. Solutions change. Challenges change. But if our staff, if our constable on the street is skilled enough to adapt to those changes, we will be winning the battle.”