Provisional agreement in Europe to improve information exchange in terrorism cases

The European Council Presidency and European Parliament representatives reached a provisional agreement on a regulation aimed at improving the exchange of digital information in terrorism cases. The text agreed upon is subject to approval by the European Council and Parliament before going through the formal adoption procedure.

This draft regulation would be part of the ongoing work to modernise and digitise cross-border judicial cooperation.

These days, terrorism knows no borders; networks are built and attacks can be prepared and perpetrated within the territories of the European Union. Therefore, in order to be able to deal with it, the European judicial authorities must also have a cross-border strategy.

The agreed new system should allow better checking of information and ensure that any links are detected, regardless of where a terrorist crime has been committed in the EU.

Currently, member states share information with Eurojust on terrorism-related cases through various channels. This information is then included in the European judicial register for the fight against terrorism, a system that is currently technically obsolete as it does not allow for proper cross-checking of information.

The proposal aims to amend these shortcomings and enable Eurojust to play a more proactive and conclusive role in supporting coordination and cooperation between national authorities that investigate and prosecute terrorist offences.

Under the proposed rules, member states will have to provide Eurojust with information on any criminal investigations related to terrorist offences as soon as these cases are transferred to the judicial authorities.

According to the agreed proposal, this would entail:

  • Creating a modern, digital case management system that stores this information and allows it to be cross-checked.
  • Empowering Eurojust to better detect links between transnational investigations and prosecutions in the field of terrorism and to proactively inform Member States of links found.
  • Creating a secure digital communication channel between Member States and Eurojust.
  • Simplifying cooperation with third countries by granting liaison prosecutors attached to Eurojust access to the case management system.

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International police cooperation measures against cybercrime

It is well known to law enforcement that DDoS services – distributed denial of service – have considerably lowered the barrier to entry into cybercrime. For a fee as low as about €10, any unskilled person can launch DDoS attacks at the click of a button, taking entire websites and networks down.

The damage that can be inflicted on victims can be significant, even crippling businesses economically and depriving people of essential services provided by various entities such as banks, police forces or government administrations.

Emboldened by a perceived anonymity, many young technology enthusiasts engage in this seemingly low-level crime, unaware of the consequences that such online activities can entail. For example, law enforcement agencies are working intensively against DDoS services. And, in this regard, all levels of users are on law enforcement’s radar, whether it’s a gamer ripping the competition from a video game or a high-level hacker conducting DDoS attacks against commercial targets for financial gain.

The effects that a criminal investigation can have on the lives of these DDoS users can be very serious, given the prison sentences that are contemplated in some countries.

In this vein, police forces from the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland and Germany developed an operation known as Power off against this type of cyber-attacks that can paralyse the Internet.

This international operation aimed at combating DDoS service providers, designed to allow users to launch a parallel distributed denial of service against critical online infrastructures, has enabled about fifty of the world’s largest illegal IT service providers to be disabled. One of these neutralised services had been used to commit more than 30 million attacks.

As part of this action, seven administrators have so far been arrested between the United States and the United Kingdom, with further action planned against users of these illegal services.

International police cooperation was critical to the success of this operation, as the administrators, users, critical infrastructure and victims were dispersed around the world. Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre coordinated activities in Europe through its Joint Cybercrime Action Taskforce (J-CAT).

This international operation follows previous editions of Power Off operations that targeted administrators and users of the webstresser.org DDoS marketplace.

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Mexican drug cartels operating in the European Union

Mexican cartels are providing drug expertise on European Union territory, specifically on cocaine and methamphetamine, which could lead to an increase in violence and the emergence of fentanyl as potential future threats.

Last December 2022, Europol and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of the United States published a joint analysis report that would show that Mexican criminal groups have worked together with EU criminal networks to boost methamphetamine and cocaine trafficking from South America to the European Union.

This new type of criminal collaboration also extends to the production of cocaine hydrochloride and methamphetamine. Although there are no indications yet of the existence of a fentanyl market in the EU, the discovery of production facilities and the seizure of the substance in the Union raise concerns about the possible emergence of a fentanyl market.

This is the first time that European and U.S. law enforcement authorities have produced a joint document in the fight against global drug trafficking. The report, entitled Complexities and Conveniences in the International Drug Trade: The Involvement of Mexican Criminal Actors in the EU Drug Market, is the result of the ongoing exchange of operational and strategic information between analysts and police officers on both sides of the Atlantic.

As shown by the most recent EU Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment, criminal networks are increasingly international and specialised in scope, with 65% of active criminal groups consisting of members of various nationalities. Also following this trend is the presence of Mexican criminal actors collaborating with EU actors in the European drug market.

The joint report gives detailed explanations of how the criminal networks involved cooperate with each other, especially through the use of specialised actors at different stages of their operations. The various actors include facilitators such as laboratory specialists, envoys, intermediaries and money laundering service providers. Law enforcement has arrested Mexican laboratory specialists, also known as ‘cooks’, who worked in production positions in Europe. Because of their unique knowledge of how to produce higher and more potent yields of the final product and obtain larger and more profitable methamphetamine crystals, these actors are particularly important.

The report also states that Mexican cartels collaborate with EU-based criminal networks to traffic both methamphetamine and cocaine into European ports for distribution or transit to even more lucrative markets in Asia and Oceania. The use of concealed shipments, such as cocaine hidden in cellular thermal concrete blocks, or plans to establish cocaine smuggling routes from Colombia to southern Italian airports with private jets, show the constantly evolving nature of these criminal activities. Corrupt public and private sector officials act as facilitators and help increase the likelihood of successfully trafficking drug shipments to Europe.

On U.S. soil, Mexican cartels have a history of establishing drug trafficking hubs and strong criminal associations, and using violence to gain control of the territory where they operate. An increased presence of Mexican cartels in the EU could also lead to increased profits for them and their criminal collaborators, as well as increased violence in Europe.

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European action against counterfeit medicines and doping substances worth more than 40 million euros

For six months in 2022, Europol coordinated the third edition of Operation Shield, a global initiative to combat trafficking of counterfeit medicines and doping substances. As a consequence of this action, more than 10.5 million medical products were seized, 349 suspects were arrested or reported to the judicial authorities and 10 clandestine laboratories were shut down.

The operation involved police and customs authorities from 28 countries (19 EU member states and 9 non-EU countries). The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) coordinated customs agencies, while the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) provided financial aid. The operation was supported by Frontex, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and national medicine agencies.

Law enforcement officers dismantled 59 criminal groups and arrested or reported 349 suspects to judicial authorities during the operation. In parallel, authorities seized massive quantities of illegal medicines, doping products and substances, food and sports supplements, as well as counterfeit COVID vaccines, healthcare products and medical devices. Doping substances and erectile dysfunction medication were among the most seized items. To increase prevention and awareness, some participating states launched anti-doping campaigns and conducted controls.

The final outcome of Operation Shield was as follows: seizures worth more than 40 million euros, seizure of more than 10.5 million units of medicines and doping substances, seizure of more than 1 million counterfeit COVID tests, 195 investigations carried out, 349 suspects arrested or reported to judicial authorities, 59 organized crime groups investigated, 10 underground laboratories closed, 588 websites monitored, 89 websites shut down, more than 218,000 shipments checked, more than 74,000 shipments seized, 3,526 in-competition anti-doping controls carried out (39 positive) and, finally, 3,245 out-of-competition anti-doping controls carried out (9 positive).

Many cases of large-scale medicine trafficking were revealed during the operation, which confirmed that it can be as lucrative as or even more lucrative than narcotics trafficking. While the aforementioned crimes generate massive illicit profits for traffickers and counterfeiters, the public finances and social care systems of some member states bear the brunt of very high financial costs. The cost to public health is also significant, whether due to the treatment of addictive behaviours or to the consequences of overdoses or shortages.

Although criminal networks are still taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the COVID-19 pandemic, trafficking of medicines and protective equipment has seen a significant decrease due to the high level of attention to the phenomenon and intense monitoring by law enforcement. Governments that offered vaccines free of charge contributed to creating an unfavourable situation for criminals seeking to feed an illegal market. In some cases, several fraud attempts targeting national agencies responsible for the supply of medicines and protective devices could be detected and thwarted.

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December 2021 U.S. federal incarceration statistics released

The federal prisoner statistics presented by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and collected through the Federal Bureau of Prisons on specific topics reports this data annually around the end of the year.

The published statistics correspond to the calendar year 2021 and detail a wide range of characteristics related to the prisons, inmates and staff, as well as the conditions of the facilities. Among the most noteworthy are the following:

The federal prison population increased by more than 3%, going from 151,283 inmates at the end of 2020 to 156,542 in the same period of 2021.

Around the end of 2021, about 85% of people in federal prisons were U.S. citizens.

Among the total number of prisoners, seven cases of sexual assault were committed against prison staff, of which two involved the use of force or death threats.

By the end of 2021, there were a total of 8,605 citizens registered to volunteer at a federal correctional facility. Of these people, 6,651 were registered for long-term service and 1,954 for 4 days or less.

In the United States there are 122 federal correctional facilities, all with video conferencing capabilities and capacities for participating in court hearings, consultations with foreign embassies, communications with parole offices, preliminary re-entry preparation, disciplinary hearings, and for the Institutional Hearing Program. It should be added that all these prisons are equipped with professional healthcare.

Over the past year, there were a total of 378 people who received medication-assisted treatment approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for substance abuse before being admitted to prisons. It is also worth mentioning that 1,127 people received the treatment while already incarcerated.

During 2021, a total of 73,459 prohibited acts were committed by 47,000 inmates in the various federal prisons. Of these, 35,433 (48%) were of moderate severity, 19,630 (27%) were of high severity and the remaining 25% (18,206) were of greatest severity.

In 2021, prison staff were physically assaulted by federal prisoners in 1,111 separate disturbances, resulting in 10 cases of serious injury to workers.

The four facilities with the most prohibited acts in 2021 were all high-security facilities: Thomson Administrative U.S. Penitentiary in Illinois (1,568 cases), Victorville U.S. Penitentiary in California (1,362 cases), Tucson U.S. Penitentiary in Arizona (1,338 cases) and Lee U.S. Penitentiary in Virginia (1,279 cases).

During the full year, the risk of recidivism was assessed in a total of 142,871 inmates in federal prison through the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs (PATTERN). About 34% of federal prisoners assessed as of 31 December 2021 were classified at high risk of recidivism, 19% at medium risk, 31% at low risk, and 15% at minimal risk.

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Start of negotiations in Europe on the Environmental Crime Directive

The European Council has opened a period of negotiations with the European Parliament on the Environmental Crime Directive with the aim of achieving a legal instrument designed to protect the environment more robustly.

The proposal aims to improve the investigation and prosecution of environmental crimes with a better definition of environmental crimes and with the addition of new typologies. It also harmonises the levels of penalties for individuals and, for the first time, also for legal entities.

Instead of the nine offences currently included in European criminal law, 20 offences are defined in the negotiations, expanding and detailing the scope of prohibited conduct to harm the environment. New crimes include timber trafficking, the main cause of deforestation in some parts of the world, illegal recycling of polluting ship components and serious breaches of chemicals legislation.

With respect to individuals who commit any of the acts covered by this proposal, the following penalties are established:

  • For crimes committed intentionally and causing the death of a person, a minimum prison sentence of ten years.
  • For crimes committed, at least, by gross negligence that cause the death of a person, penalty of at least five years.
  • For all other intentional crimes included in the legislation, a minimum sentence of three years’ imprisonment.

In the case of legal entities, the text establishes the following penalties:

  • For the most serious offences, a maximum fine of at least 5% of the total turnover at the level of the legal entity, or EUR 40 million.
  • For all other offences, a maximum fine starting at 3% of the total worldwide turnover of the legal entity, or EUR 24 million.

Other additional measures may also be adopted, such as the obligation for the offender to restore the environment or compensate for damages, their exclusion from access to public funding or the withdrawal of permits or authorisations.

In addition, the text incorporates the need to provide training for those working to detect, investigate and prosecute environmental crime and to provide these services with sufficient resources.

It also contains provisions on aid and assistance to persons who report environmental crimes, to environmental defenders and to persons affected by this type of crime.

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United States activates dedicated mental health crisis hotline

Although the Suicide Prevention Lifeline has long been a valuable resource, remembering the 10-digit phone number is not easy, especially during a crisis. Consequently, many people dial the 911 police emergency line, with calls for help that should have been directed to mental health specialists.

As reported by a U.S. Department of Justice website, the rollout of the new telephone and emergency service may be a breath of fresh air for people with mental crises or illnesses.

There is now a three-digit number that is easy to remember to call, chat with or text to get confidential access to mental health specialists 24 hours a day: 988.

This Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 988 has become a much-needed resource of great benefit, not only for at-risk individuals, but also for police departments, overwhelmed by a growing number of calls with mental health-related issues. It is currently estimated that, in some departments, 911 calls with mental health undertones are greater than 30% of total police service claims.

This service has been put in place because many people calling 911 with mental health emergencies ended up under arrest, in prison or cornered in hospital emergency departments waiting hours or even days for care. And they often ended up back on the street, in jail or in the hospital.

Parallel to the operation of the 988 service, a guide called 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by SAMHSA has been edited with some suggestions for successfully implementing the new line:

  • Develop cross-system partnerships that connect mental health and other health, police and fire professionals with the agency that manages the call centre and the services that can be dispatched.
  • Engage key stakeholders, including government and community leaders.
  • It must be ensured that the community has the resources and infrastructure to help patients. SAMHSA’s National Guidelines for Behavioural Health Crisis Care can be used to identify what crisis services exist at the local, regional, or state level.
  • Review policies, procedures, and training materials to ensure that 988 is effectively incorporated into their crisis responses.
  • Take steps to make sure that calls can be seamlessly transferred between 988 and 911 to responding officers, so they can streamline 988 services when requested by a person in crisis.
  • 988 should be promoted. The public, as well as local law enforcement officers, should be educated on the operation of 988 as it is deployed.
  • Coordinate with federal stakeholders to ensure that the department and the community have the most up-to-date information on what is available in each state.

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Conclusions of the European Council on women, peace and security

Gender equality and human rights are at the heart of universal values and comprise stand-alone priorities integrated into all European Union policies. The European Council recalls that its Conclusions on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) of 10 December 2018 reiterate the validity of the EU’s strategic approach to WPS, and commits to fully implement the EU Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2019-2024.

The Council highlights the importance of the WPS agenda in a political context and welcomes its inclusion in different EU policies and action plans since the adoption of the 2018 Council conclusions. In this vein, the European Commission has adopted an EU Strategy for Gender Equality 2020-2025 and an EU Gender Action Plan (GAP) III, “An Ambitious Agenda for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in EU External Action” 2021-2025, welcomed through the Presidency Conclusions of 16 December 2020.

The disproportionate impact that armed conflict continues to have on women and girls around the world, as well as the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence, including conflict-related sexual violence, are a concern for the Council.

The Council stresses that the EU will implement a coordinated approach to risk mitigation and prevention of all forms of sexual and gender-based violence and will make sure that responses are victim/survivor-centred and trauma-sensitive. This includes access to reproductive health care services, as well as mental health and psychological support. The Council reaffirms its strong commitment to uphold international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and to put an end to impunity for international crimes, especially when rape is used as a weapon of war.

The Union remains committed to the promotion, protection and fulfilment of all human rights and to the full and effective implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the outcomes of its review conferences. It also keeps its commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in that context.

The WPS agenda is crucial for contemporary challenges in the realm of global peace and security. In this regard, the Council stresses that armed conflicts, as well as emerging and increasingly complex new security challenges such as climate change, food insecurity, scarcity of water and other natural resources, pandemics, including the impact of COVID-19, energy challenges, terrorism, organised crime, migration and forced displacement, human trafficking, risks associated with emerging and disruptive technologies, and hybrid threats, including cyber-attacks and disinformation, affect women and girls disproportionately. These effects have resulted in a general deterioration in the position of women with adverse consequences for the full enjoyment of women’s and girls’ human rights across the world. The EU and its Member States are committed to seeking understanding and acting on the gender dimensions of security risks to avoid increasing vulnerabilities, but also to discovering new entry points to move forward with gender equality, improve resilience and keep peace. It is fundamental to ensure that any response is based on:

  • A gender analysis of the causes, consequences and policy implications, using gender statistics based on data disaggregated by sex, age and disability, to guarantee a more effective, inclusive and sustainable response.
  • The full, equal and meaningful participation of women in all stages of the conflict cycle.
  • The prevention of and protection against gender-based violence.
  • Inclusive and gender-sensitive global leadership in politics and security decision-making in general.

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Identifying lies to improve security

A group of researchers at RAND Corporation published a report in which they explain that they discovered that machine learning (ML) models can identify signs of deception during national security background check interviews. The most accurate approach to detecting deception is an ML model that counts the number of times respondents use common words.

The researchers’ experiment worked as follows:

  • The 103 participants read a story about how, in 2013, Edward Snowden leaked classified information from the National Security Agency.
  • Participants were randomly assigned to read the same story, but it was presented either as a news report or as a memo with markings indicating that it contained confidential information.
  • Participants were assigned to one of two groups in order to be interviewed. One group was told to lie about what they had read and the other to tell the truth.
  • Former law enforcement officers interviewed participants via videoconference and random-order text-based chat.

The RAND researchers used the interview and chat transcripts to train different ML models to see if these could distinguish liars from truth-tellers.

These scholars reached three major conclusions:

  • It is not just what one says, but how one says it: frequency of words, cadence of speech, choice of words and other linguistic signals of potential lies.
  • ML models can detect signs of deception in the way people express themselves, even in text-based chats without the presence of a human interviewer.
  • The models are tools that can add to existing interviewing techniques, but they cannot completely replace these techniques.

In terms of the implications this may have for security, the researchers highlight the following:

  • Men take part in many of the background investigations for security clearances, and at least a quarter of security clearance applicants are women. It is important to understand how the gender of the interviewer might affect the modelling results.
  • Inappropriate use of ML tools could lead to inequities in the acceptance and rejection rates of security clearance applicants.
  • Due to potential biases in ML model results and in humans, it is important to maintain a system of checks and balances that includes both humans and machines.
  • The models found that men and women used different words to deceive. Men were less likely to use the word “I” when lying and more likely to use it when telling the truth.

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