Turin, 10 April 2020. The novel coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) and the resulting global crisis are posing unprecedented challenges to national systems and the international community due to its rapid and global impact on public health, social well-being, the economy and critical infrastructure. On 12 March 2020, the World Health Organization announced that the COVID-19 outbreak had reached the status of a pandemic and the majority of countries have now implemented emergency measures.
During this unprecedented scenario, with limited national resources being directed towards urgent public health measures, it is important to recognize the additional risk exposure the pandemic is causing. One of the key challenges Member States are facing relates to non-state actors (including terrorist and criminal groups) that are taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to jeopardize the efficacy of governments' response measures, as well as undermining the safety of citizens through a wide spectrum of criminal activities. It is very likely that these corrosive criminal actions will not be limited to the present crisis, but will continue during its aftermath, as terrorist and criminal groups seek to influence post-COVID-19 policies for their own benefit.
UNICRI is closely monitoring the role of terrorist and criminal groups during this rapidly evolving global crisis, and has prioritized the following emerging risks:
- Malicious use of social media by non-state actors to undermine trust in governments during the COVID-19 pandemic, jeopardising the credibility of governments and maliciously misleading citizens about response measures;
- Cyber-attacks perpetrated by non-state actors to weaken governmental assets (including health institutions involved in the COVID-19 response and patient treatment) and strategies to deal with COVID-19;
- Intentional transmission of COVID-19 for criminal or terrorist purposes (including malicious misuse against individuals and the food and medical supply chain);
- Criminal activities that are exploiting vulnerabilities introduced by the crisis, including phishing attacks, telephone fraud, production and sale of counterfeit medical products and technologies and criminal attempts to penetrate and rob homes and businesses disguised as health officials.
On 7 April 2020, UNICRI organized the first in a series of "Expert Teleworkshops" to discuss how the malicious use of social media by non-state actors is affecting government strategies to mitigate and contain the impact of COVID-19. The event was attended by more than 50 participants from Member States (Burundi, Georgia, the Republic of Kazakhstan, the United States and Ukraine), international organizations, research institutions and technology companies. The Teleworkshop was an opportunity to analyse the profiles of perpetrators of fake news, the techniques employed to amplify false information, the types of messages communicated and the objectives that criminal and radical groups are trying to achieve by maliciously using social media.
Among the high-level speakers participating in the Teleworkshop, Mr. Paul Radu, Director of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and Mr. Dan Kaszeta, Managing Director of Strongpoint Security, set the framework for the discussion on the malicious use of social media by organized crime and extremist groups. Mr. Giorgi Beridze, from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia, and Mr. Ievgen Vladimirov, from the Ministry of Energy and Coal Industry of Ukraine, then presented case studies from their countries. All participants agreed that the COVID-19 crisis represents an unprecedented opportunity for radicalization and recruitment, undermining political authority, creating confusion to mislead citizens or to distract from parallel criminal activities. A Report highlighting the main conclusions and recommendations from the Teleworkshop will soon be published.
In April, UNICRI will organize a second Expert Teleworkshop to discuss existing and forward-looking solutions to address the risks identified during the first Teleworkshop, including technology-based solutions employing Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Blockchain Technology. In the coming weeks, UNICRI will organize further Teleworkshops focusing on new challenges posed by terrorist and criminal groups during COVID-19.