Europol: 5G Will Make Investigating Organized Crime Harder

Published: 18 July 2019

5g-network5G networks are set for a 2020 rollout (JCT 600)

By Maya Perry

Emerging 5G technology will disable Europol from tapping criminal communications and will therefore make it harder to investigate organized crime, the agency’s new director, Catherine De Bolle, cautioned in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday. 

It is a warning that Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, has been impressing upon the public for at least a year now. 

5G technology, which is anticipated to be up to 100 times faster and more efficient than 4G, is viewed as an essential tool in facilitating society’s shift towards maintaining an “internet of things,” where more and more technology--such as self-driving cars and garbage disposal systems--is connected to the internet. 

As the European Commission worked to ensure that Europe is not left behind in what has become a geopolitically-wrought shift towards building 5G infrastructure--committing in 2016 to “making 5G a reality for all citizens and businesses by the end of this decade”--De Bolle says law enforcement was largely uninvolved in discussions.

Unlike 4G, 5G will encrypt the unique identifiers that enable the identification and geo-location of mobile phone users, making intercepting and investigating communications between suspected criminals more challenging, Europol’s Internet Organized Crime Threat Assessment explained in 2018.

The sheer bulk of information that 5G would allow users to quickly download and transfer is also poised to easily overwhelm law enforcement. 

“We need to be at the table where they discuss about the technological development, where they discuss standardization,” De Bolle told Reuters this week. 

In the same 2018 report, Europol raised concerns with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that went into effect shortly before the report was released, noting the added administrative burden it puts on law enforcement wishing to obtain time-sensitive internet records and data. 

Europol is a coordinating body that supports investigations being carried out by the national law enforcement agencies of the EU member states, and has no ability itself to wiretap or monitor suspected criminals. 

However, being able to lawfully intercept telecommunications is a critical investigative tool for the national law enforcement agencies it oversees. 

In a memo sent to the Council of Europe in April, Europol noted that “the potential challenges for law enforcement as a result of developments within the area of 5G do not appear to be a priority for developers” and that the agency’s efforts to proactively ensure that lawful interception remains technologically feasible is therefore crucial.

“The area we are working in and the technological evolution we are dealing with - the innovation used by criminals, the web-based criminality - it is huge,” De Bolle said.