Organised crime gets smart with technology
Not wiretap-friendly ... functions such as Blackberry Messenger allow criminals to communicate undetected by law enforcement agencies.
NSW's top crime-fighting agency has admitted it is being outsmarted by criminals who use BlackBerry phones and online telephone services such as Skype to prevent their illicit conversations being taped by police.
Organised crime groups, drug dealers and bikies are increasingly leap-frogging the NSW Crime Commission and other law-enforcement agencies by simply using BlackBerry mobile phones and devices with special encryption technology that cannot be bugged or traced by police.
A senior NSW police officer described the ''sad reality'' that high-tech security systems have become widely available in consumer goods and cover most aspects of online life from credit cards to email passwords.
Police are concerned criminals increasingly are using basic encryption technology, through internet services such as Skype or Google chat, because it is impossible for agencies to intercept and record conversations that could then be used in court as evidence of criminal activity.
So significant is the trend that the Crime Commission, which has special powers to dismantle criminal groups, has listed in its latest annual report encrypted technology as one of its major concerns.
''Criminals continue to exploit new methods of communication that are less amenable to interception by law enforcement,'' the report says. ''The capacity for criminals to utilise new technology in this way has significantly increased in recent years and continues to increase.''
The report says the Crime Commission spends ''significant resources and funds'' to maintain the effectiveness of its technical operations for criminal investigations. However, it adds: ''The commission believes that it is approaching the point where its ability to maintain a capacity for effective electronic surveillance will be significantly impaired.''
The NSW Opposition Leader, John Robertson, has called on the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, to allocate more funds so the Crime Commission can close the technology gap to crack down on organised crime, especially following an increase in shootings in suburban Sydney.
''We can't allow a situation to develop where high-level crime bosses get off because the gangs have more sophisticated technology than the police,'' Mr Robertson said.
But a spokesman for the Police Minister, Michael Gallacher, said encryption was a reality that ''all law-enforcement agencies have been discussing of late''.
''Throwing money at the problem will have no effect,'' he said. ''The only way to penetrate these networks is through human-source intelligence and good police work. Unfortunately, sometimes the crooks are one step ahead of law enforcement. However, through co-operation with other jurisdictions and the sharing of information, we can close that gap.''
Last year the Herald reported that members of the Comanchero gang were using untraceable BlackBerry phones imported from Mexico when working with a Mexican drug cartel to import cocaine into Australia. The syndicate used phones that did not require identification when bought.
The encryption dilemma has implications for national security and terrorism threats.
The devices have also been crucial during the Arab Spring for dissidents and protesters to disseminate information and co-ordinate rallies under the radar of authorities.
British police cited BlackBerry phones and their free message service as one of the reasons for the rapid spread of riots across London last year. Since then police have been unable to prosecute many of the culprits because of the encrypted service.
The FBI has been lobbying technology companies such as Skype and Google - and other companies that provide online phone calls, instant messaging and email - to rewrite their codes to become more wiretap-friendly.
But companies are reluctant to help law-enforcement bodies unless there is a clear public interest because their customers could turn to other products that assure privacy.