Rapid technological change and disruptive technologies have had a profound effect on the criminal law landscape, providing endless opportunities for criminals to exploit and endless challenges for law enforcement to contend with.

In a recent report, Europol anticipates the challenges that developing and emerging technologies will present and the likely impact on serious and organised crime, stating that “it is no longer good enough to be reactive when contending with such rapid evolutions in technology and criminality.”

Key technological developments and the impact on crime

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI technology is developing at a rapid rate and becoming increasingly available, providing opportunities for malicious actors to exploit.

Whilst AI can be used to increase cybersecurity, it can also be used as a powerful tool by cybercriminals. Some potential criminal applications of AI include:

  • Customisation and automation of cyber attacks such as phishing emails
  • Automation of the process of discovering new cyber vulnerabilities
  • Supporting target selection and prioritisation
  • Responding to changes in a target’s behaviour
  • Use of ‘deepfake technology’ to impersonate CEOs and defraud organisations
  • Use by terrorists to carry out attacks, e.g. by using self-driving vehicles as weapons

Law enforcement authorities need to invest in better understanding AI and the potential threats it will bring, as well as exploring opportunities to counter these threats, particularly in the area of cyber security.

Quantum computing and encryption

Quantum computers are expected to deliver an unprecedented increase in computer processing power, which is likely to revolutionise the areas of information security and encryption. Potential criminal applications include:

  • Breaking current encryption and security standards
  • Orchestrating more sophisticated cyber attacks
  • Decrypting information and communications
  • Developing new ways to encrypt communications that cannot be intercepted by law enforcement

There is a need for researchers, law enforcement and government authorities to collectively develop an effective approach to the regulation and use of quantum-enabled computing, including exploring the area of quantum cryptography which will likely have a significant impact on the work of law enforcement.

Fifth generation of telecommunications systems (5G)

Despite the anticipated benefits of 5G such as lightning-speed data connections, the technology also poses a number of challenges for law enforcement, including:

  • Reduced ability to identify and locate devices
  • Complication of the use of legal investigation and surveillance measures
  • 5G networks fragmenting information, making it unavailable or inaccessible to law enforcement
  • Device-to-device communication (without using operator’s core network) would further complicate ability of law enforcement to retrieve communication data
  • End-to-end (E2E) encryption protocols may be included as obligatory standards, making it impossible to legally intercept and analyse communications

There is a need for law enforcement to engage with providers and contribute to developments in the area of 5G from a security perspective, for example ensuring that lawful interception becomes part of the design process.

Dark web networks and cryptocurrencies

The darknet is a key facilitator for the trade in illicit goods and services, whilst cryptocurrencies allow criminals to anonymously conduct transactions and perpetrate crimes. Ongoing challenges for law enforcement posed by these technologies include:

  • Increasing use by criminals of high-privacy cryptocurrencies to evade law enforcement
  • Cryptocurrency mining
  • Potential for criminals and terrorists to abuse new decentralised computing technologies to be able to operate with a greater degree of anonymity and avoid law enforcement detection
  • Lack of accountability of communications providers for the abuse of their networks in a decentralised web, where no single entity is responsible for operating or storing data
  • Use of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to launder the proceeds of crime

Law enforcement need to be involved in discussions around regulation of these technologies, forming partnerships with the private sector to ensure a safer global digital environment.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

The Report refers to IoT as “the evergrowing network of interconnected physical devices enabled by internet connectivity and the communication that occurs between them.”

The rise of this technology will raise a number of cybersecurity implications, including:

  • Insecure IoT devices may become an easier target for criminals aiming to distribute attacks, infiltrate or infect networks
  • The vulnerability of IoT devices may be exploited by criminals seeking to collect personal data, compromise user credentials or even spy on people or organisations
  • The potential for cyber attacks to become an increasingly physical threat, e.g. attacks on critical infrastructure enabled by IoT technology

Law enforcement need to keep pace with the rapid development of IoT technology, anticipating and preparing to combat the threats it poses.

3D printing and related technologies

The increasing availability of 3D printing technology creates opportunities for criminal abuse, including:

  • 3D printed firearms
  • The manufacture of ATM skimming devices
  • Increased production of counterfeit goods
  • Sabotage by hackers due to the increasing use of 3D printing in security-related fields
  • The development of programmable matter (PM) technology and its use in 4D printing, enabling 3D printed objects to be “customisable by the user or programmable for other post-fabrication changes in shape and function, including adapting to changing environments.”

Law enforcement need to follow the developments of these technologies to better anticipate, mitigate and respond to misuse by criminals.

Biotechnology and genetic engineering

Due to increased availability and reduced cost of rapidly developing bio-technologies, there is the potential for criminal misuse, including:

  • Terrorists using biological agents as weapons (e.g. the manufacture of diseases)
  • Hacking of corporate and government databases to steal genetic codes and use them to replicate biologically produced drugs, for monetary gain
  • Production of counterfeit treatments for a range of diseases
  • Using increasingly accessible DNA sequencing tools to steal DNA data and commit identity-related crimes
  • Planting of false DNA evidence at a crime scene to frame someone


Emerging and rapidly developing technologies such as AI, 5G, IoT and quantum computing are predicted to present vast opportunities for exploitation by criminals, thereby creating unique challenges for law enforcement.