Technology fuelling illicit trade

Experts say recent technology has changed the fundamentals of trade, in both legitimate and illegal economies. (Getty Images/Shutterstock)
Updated 02 January 2019

Technology fuelling illicit trade

  • With advancement in technology, more goods are easily exploited in illegal online markets

DUBAI: Emerging technologies and the dark web are fueling illicit trade, which is posing a growing threat to global economies. Middle Eastern nations are among the many countries that have failed to prevent criminals from exploiting loopholes to traffic illegal goods. 

As the Transnational Alliance to Combat Illicit Trade (TRACIT) points out, lying behind every sensational headline is another, often unreported, story which links to illicit trade. 

Take the North Korean nuclear crisis, which could spark a conflict costing hundreds of thousands of lives. Behind that story lies another about a criminal state that survives on counterfeit currency, arms and illicit goods such as cigarettes.

The refugee crisis ravaging Southeast Asia provides cover for human traffickers, while in the Middle East and North Africa, behind the uprisings and the humanitarian crises in war-torn countries like Yemen and Syria, lies another story about the illegal arms trade, a major factor in ongoing conflicts. 

“Illicit trade is a growing threat to economies around the world; the extent and nature of illicit trade is growing as new ways are being developed to supply illicit goods in new categories, bypassing traditional efforts to control it,” John Reiners from analysis firm Oxford Economics told Arab News. “The cost is not just lost revenues to legitimate businesses and tax authorities, but there is a link between illicit trade and organized crime. 

“Criminals fund illicit activity such as drugs and people smuggling, with proceeds from other illicit trades such as illicit cigarettes.”       

While such activities have been around as long as there have been borders, experts say recent technology has changed the fundamentals of trade, in both legitimate and illegal economies.

As Mark Shaw, director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, said: “The global revolution in telecommunications flattened organized crime structures, allowing for constant communication. And if you look at the data, it is almost amazing the degree to which illicit activities have matched licit ones since then.”

In her book, “Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy Is Threatening Our Future,” expert Louise I. Shelley addresses illicit trade in tangible goods—drugs, human beings arms and counterfeits. In the past three decades, she writes, the most advanced forms of illicit trade have broken with all historical precedents and now “operate as if on steroids, tied to computers and social media.” 

Shelley says new technology, communications and globalization fuel the exponential growth of dangerous forms of illegal trade – the markets for narcotics and child pornography online, the escalation of sex trafficking through web advertisements and the sale of endangered species. These in turn have exacerbated many of the world’s destabilizing phenomena – the perpetuation of conflicts, the proliferation of arms and weapons of mass destruction, and environmental degradation and extinction.

Reiners said that technological change is having a dramatic impact on trade and provides vast opportunities for illegal trading. Along with globalization, opening borders and e-commerce, it has become easier than ever for forgers to organize and expand their business. While drugs, firearms and weapons of war are among the most widely publicized illicit trafficked goods, Reiners said other illicit products such as cigarettes and tobacco, alcoholic drinks and medicines also have serious implications for public health and often offer strong financial incentives for consumers to avoid official channels.

“Consumer behavior has changed. Buyers now are now after the lowest prices, not the legitimacy of goods. 

“Illicit trade is more likely to be online and carried out from the comfort of your own home, rather than haggling for goods in a dark alley, attracting more people to buying illicit goods, often unknowingly. “

Supply chains have become more international and complex, said Reiners, increasing vulnerabilities for illicit traders to exploit. “There are now vast volumes of small packages sent to consumers via the postal system, bypassing traditional customs points. As the economy becomes more digital, there are more opportunities for counterfeiters to create excellent copies and abuse intellectual property rights.”

Reiners also highlighted the complexities of enforcing controls on the dark net, where traders can easily switch jurisdictions. “Law enforcers have had some notable successes, but illicit traders are highly mobile. If you close down an illicit site, it pops up elsewhere. The dark web is heavily used for illicit trading, but more by hardened criminals that the average consumer.“

TRACIT annually produces its Global Illicit Trade Environment Index, which evaluates 84 economies on their structural capability to protect against illicit trade. 

Its recently published 2018 report found that, while some countries in the Middle East and Africa were praised in several indicators – such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia for its effective customs procedures – overall the MENA region scored the most poorly among regions globally, with countries including Libya and Iraq scoring among the most poorly globally. 

The UAE ranked second, after Israel, in the MENA region for its overall effectiveness in tackling illicit trade, out of 10 countries in MENA that were studied. Saudi Arabia ranked in fifth place. 

The report noted that many countries were failing to recognize the importance of fighting illicit trade. 

“Where economies aren’t under-resourced in customs or law enforcement, they may otherwise be indifferent or actively neglect illicit practices in order to continue reaping the economic benefits of being a global financial centre (like the UK) or a regional logistics hub (like Singapore, Dubai and Panama) or one of the world’s factories (like China and Vietnam) or a main source of narcotics (like Colombia). Or they may just be corrupt; corruption is far more pervasive than people appreciate, and it is by no means limited to the developing world.

“An international community of people – observers, experts, private sector executives and government officials – have identified the many ways in which illicit trade, in all its various forms, can be combated. Economies that are laggards on the issue can start small and build towards a better environment for preventing illicit trade. And the economies that are leaders should lead.”

Marco Cappellini, president of ViDiTrust and a member of the Coalition Against Illicit Trade, told Arab News that the damage to the global trade was rapidly rising toward €2 trillion and the emergency of evolving technologies, e-commerce and the dark web contributed to this figure.

“Over the last 15 years, the understanding that counterfeiting and illicit trade are scourges for developed countries has risen sharply across all stakeholders. Counterfeit goods exist in all markets, from fashion to spare parts and from toys to pharmaceutical products. The sale of counterfeit goods is on the rise year after year.”

In places like the the Middle East, which has a strong online focus and where e-commerce is expected to reach $48.8 billion, this shift online presents a new channel for illicit trade.

“Cyberspace is populated by honest sellers but also by criminal organizations,” Cappellini said. “There are several things that must be done to fight counterfeiting: Inform consumers about the risks associated in buying from dubious e-commerce stores. Inform brands that they can add security features to their products. Facilitate the cooperation between different countries to fight counterfeiting.”

Reiners said the biggest threats to global economies in the next decade, should governments fail to implement successful counteractive measures, include the substantial growth of illicit trade, loss of tax revenues, undermining of trust in the economy and trading systems, and the growth of organized crime.

He said a number of measures are needed, such as updating legal frameworks to be more relevant to the internet; monitoring and closing down illicit sites; encouraging and incentivizing major participants in e-commerce to take more responsibility for illicit trade; developing better ways of authenticating products and tracking them through the supply chain; and rerouting resources to match the new flows in trade, such as increased checks at parcel depots.

“Technology continues to provide opportunities for illicit traders and in the coming years, with advanced manufacturing, 3D printing and AI, this will continue. Those working to combat it need to invest in the latest techniques to keep up.”   


France grapples with high domestic violence rate

Updated 22 November 2019

France grapples with high domestic violence rate

  • EU studies show France has a higher rate of domestic violence than most of its European peers
  • By the hundreds, women have walked silently through city streets after each new death

LES MUREAUX: Sylvia. Dalila. Aminata. Céline. Julie. Their names are plastered on buildings and headlines across France, calling attention to their shared fate: Each was killed, allegedly by a current or former partner this year.
More than 130 women have died from domestic violence this year alone in France, according to activists who track the deaths.
European Union studies show France has a higher rate of domestic violence than most of its European peers. And frustrated activists have drawn national attention to a problem President Emmanuel Macron has called “France’s shame.”
Under cover of night, activists have glued posters with the names of the dead and calls to action to French city walls. “Complaints ignored, women killed,” read the black block letters on one such sign.
By the hundreds, women have walked silently through city streets after each new death.
Two years after Macron made a campaign pledge to tackle the problem, the government has begun to act.
A Justice Ministry report released earlier this month acknowledged authorities’ systematic failure to intervene to prevent domestic violence murders. On Monday, the government will announce measures that are expected to include seizing firearms from people suspected of domestic violence, prioritizing police training and formally recognizing “psychological violence” as a form of domestic violence.
Women are not the only victims of domestic violence, but French officials say they make up the vast majority.
Lawyers and victims’ advocates say women are too often disbelieved or turned away by law enforcement. But they’re encouraged by the new national conversation, which they say marks a departure from decades of denial.
“In France, we always have the impression that we are perfect,” feminist activist Caroline de Haas told The Associated Press.
A 2014 EU survey of 42,000 women across all 28 member states found that 26% of French women respondents said they been abused by a partner since age 15, either physically or sexually.
That’s below the global average of 30%, according to UN Women. But it’s 4 percentage points above the EU average and the sixth highest among EU countries.
Half that number reported experiencing such abuse in Spain, which implemented a series of legal and educational measures in 2004 that slashed its domestic violence rates.
Conversations about domestic violence have also ratcheted up in neighboring Germany, where activists are demanding the term “femicide” be used to describe such killings.
In France, victims and advocates say government action is overdue — and that more training is needed for police who are often ill-prepared to protect women in danger.
Police inaction made national headlines in France after Macron visited a hotline call center in September and listened in on a call with a 57-year-old woman whose husband had threatened to kill her. He heard a police officer on the other end tell the woman he couldn’t help her.
The hotline operator told Macron that such responses weren’t unusual.
Police officers across Europe often dismiss domestic violence as a private matter and fail to intervene at crucial moments, an EU study found this year.
But France is particularly bad, said EU researcher Albin Dearing, who led a study this year that examined domestic violence in seven European countries, including France.
“When it comes to violence against women, it showed actually that police do very little to protect women who turn to them for protection,” he said.
It can take between three weeks and two months for authorities to act on a complaint, leaving the victim “in a very fragile situation,” according to Frederique Martz, who runs anti-domestic violence organization Women Safe.
The Justice Ministry report this month found that 41% of “conjugal homicide” victims studied had previously reported incidents of domestic violence, and 80% of complaints sent to prosecutors went uninvestigated.
“Our system doesn’t work to protect women,” Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet told French TV channel LCI after another French woman was allegedly killed by her husband in Alsace last week.
Many officers respond appropriately to reports of domestic violence, according to Maj. Fabienne Boulard of the national police.
Those who don’t — the ones who react “clumsily” or ask the wrong questions — usually don’t mean harm, she added; they just don’t recognize domestic violence or know how to intervene.
This is particularly true when women receive threats but not yet physical blows, victims say.
Officers “absorb this violence into the category of violence between a couple that is going through a difficult period,” said one woman whose ex-husband repeatedly threatened her and their children. She spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
The woman divorced him after years of what she describes as psychological abuse that left her “terrified to cross him.” His threats only grew worse from there, she said.
She filed multiple complaints, but she said police officers suggested she didn’t seem like a victim or and wasn’t able to prove she was in danger.
Earlier this month, Boulard, the police major, led the first supplementary training on domestic violence for police in the Paris suburb of Les Mureaux. She emphasized to the eight officers there that among victims, “shame is an extremely strong feeling.”
Participants traded stories of issues they had encountered: the surge in complaints on Sundays, the woman who retracts her complaint, the partner who insists everything is fine.
“We can’t do anything,” one female police officer complained.
Boulard told The AP that the three-hour session aimed to help officers understand the pressures victims face and “why the victim is not what they imagined, why sometimes they don’t correspond with the criteria they expect to see.”
Trainings like Boulard’s take place in some parts of France, but regional authorities can decide whether to hold them. Activists hope they’ll become routine.
“A year or two ago, no one used the word ‘femicide’ apart from feminist organizations,” Haas said. “There is very much a change in public consciousness.”