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Interpol’s number two official: The war in Ukraine will create more skilled, more ruthless and better armed criminal groups

Stephen Kavanagh, Executive Director for Police Services at Interpol.


23 Feb 2024

Stephen Kavanagh, the British candidate to become the next secretary general of the international police organization, talks about the possibilities of AI to fight crime and the dangers of tension in the Middle East

Wars are also a testing ground for criminals, who emerge from them much more dangerous and better armed. “Some cyber criminals who are operating in Russia and Ukraine have turned from pure crime to attacking each other, they have enhanced their capabilities. And whilst they are focused on trying to cause harm as part of their wider conflict, when they come back to mainstream crime, they will be more skilled, they’ll be more ruthless in what they do.”

The person issuing this warning is Stephen Kavanagh, who serves as Executive Director for Police Services at Interpol, making him the second-highest ranking official after the Secretary-General. As a matter of fact, he is running for the top position at the international police organization, which will hold a general assembly to select a candidate in November. Kavanagh agreed to speak with EL PAÍS about the security challenges facing the world.

“We’ve seen evidence of some of these weapons turning up in other theaters and being sold on. And that is something that will have an impact on Europe, not just for the next five, but for the next 15 or 20 years, there will be criminals who are better armed,” he predicts.

Before serving under current Secretary-General Jürgen Stock, who has been at the helm of the 100-year-old institution for nearly a decade, Kavanagh spent 30 years at New Scotland Yard, and five more as Chief Constable of Essex Police. He has coordinated the fight against terrorism, been in charge of the security of the British royal family, and directed the National Digital Intelligence strategy to confront criminals whose capabilities have been strongly reinforced by technology. Kavanagh is one of those who believe in Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a tool capable of turning police efforts into something radically different.

“I think the primary role of law enforcement is to prevent crime. You know, we love to arrest the bad guys once they’ve done nasty things or shipped the drugs. However, to stop those harms happening, to stop lives being devastated through gun running or human trafficking, is much more powerful,” he says.

Interpol’s fundamental task is to connect information and connect the dots, to provide the general vision in the fight against organized crime that often gets lost from a purely national perspective. Kavanagh says they have seen it recently with major anti-drug operations on the west coast of Africa and in Ireland. “When Interpol is called in and is able to support those member countries, in analyzing the communications data, that financial data, the transport data and so on, what we’re able to do is make links like no other organization can in the world.” But the amount of information is already taking on such a dimension that only through AI machine learning can this web be deciphered, says Kavanagh.

That is why he does not hesitate to defend the major blow delivered by French police authorities when they decrypted EncroChat, the hidden communication system that thousands of criminals around the world used to talk to each other. France distributed the captured conversations among the security services of the affected countries, so that each could use them in their own investigations. The vast majority of the messages were related to drug trafficking, and security forces across half the planet were stunned by the level and complexity of crime, which went much deeper than they thought.

Criminal organizations are now seeking for the international justice system to deactivate this move and to ban an indiscriminate system of interception of communications without prior judicial authorization. “So many of these crimes do not get reported at a police station, they go unseen and unheard. And whether that’s protection rackets, whether that’s child abuse online, the dark marketplaces, the environmental crimes and the brutal poisoning of the waterways in Africa through the illegal mining processes, none of them are getting reported,” says Kavanagh. “And I’ve got no doubt that the colleagues who came up with that EncroChat concept have looked at the proportionality, have looked at the necessity, have looked at the scale of the crimes, the invasion of privacy, but what they have seen, or what is clear from encroach at the scale, is that the volume and the nastiness of the crimes cannot go unanswered. And if we do not innovate ethically, and proportionately with the technology sector, with the advice of lawyers, then law enforcement will fall further and further behind.”

The danger of tension in the Middle East

Kavanagh knows first-hand about the threat of Islamist terrorism, which London has also suffered. And he knows how those “lone wolves” are activated, how they get their ideas through online forums and websites in the darkest reaches of the internet. Nothing stimulates these threats more than a global tension that polarizes society. “With the tragic set of circumstances we’re seeing across the Sahel, across Yemen, across into Palestine, there will always always be those that use those dreadful circumstances to hijack people’s emotions and cause them to do bloody and awful things. So we must not become complacent,” he warns.

Kavanagh’s qualifications for the position to which he aspires are unquestionable, but Interpol, while vaunting its neutrality, is also a political playing field. The Brazilian candidate, Valdecy Urquiza, is starting the race with more possibilities because the institution has for many decades been under the control of the United States and Europe. China has expressed implicit support for the Brazilian nominee. But the British government, which saw its police connections with Europol weakened after a stormy Brexit, wants to reinforce its international relevance.

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