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New Economist Intelligence Unit report looks at the intersection of technology, crime and illicit trade

This Week

  • The report focuses on three technologies—encryption, blockchain and 3D printing—and how they benefit criminals and law enforcement
  • The tension this creates can be resolved on the enforcement side with cooperation and trust-building

HONG KONG SAR – Media OutReach – 17 March 2021 – Advances in technology bring many benefits, as the speed of development of the covid-19 vaccines demonstrates. But they also create new tensions across a host of areas. Unintended consequences, unexpected benefits: Technology, crime and illicit trade, a report from The Economist Intelligence Unit, supported by Philip Morris International, explores those tensions across three technologies: encryption, blockchain and 3D printing.


Encryption is both a technology that protects legitimate interests and one that is open to abuse by malicious actors. Law-abiding citizens value the protection offered by encryption to safeguard privacy in their daily lives; criminals also value it for safeguarding their illegal activities and identities.

The private sector has so far remained steadfast in their refusal to share encryption keys with governments and law enforcement. There’s little to suggest that stance is going to change soon, if ever, since any relaxation is likely to quickly result in users migrating to other platforms.


Despite its libertarian origins, blockchain may emerge as a leading enforcement technology for combating illicit trade. Distributed ledgers can enhance authenticity through a verifiable digital footprint for barcodes, serial numbers or cryptographic seals, making it far easier to identify fakes and counterfeits at every step of the supply chain.

There were concerns in the early stages of adoption that the anonymity granted by blockchain would facilitate greater criminal activity, especially in the area of money laundering. The evidence that existed at the time supported those concerns. Since then, however, studies have found that only 2% of bitcoin transactions can be tied to illicit activity and a 2020 survey of anti-laundering specialists predicted a decrease in use of cryptocurrencies for the same purpose.

3D printing

Much has been made of the criminal potential of 3D printing. Conventional wisdom says 3D printing is a problem for law enforcement to manage, rather than a tool to be leveraged, particularly given its can be used to print weapons. Private sector firms and customs agencies around the world are developing 3D printing tools to turn the tables, such as tracking the distinct “digital fingerprints” left by individual printers and creating replicas of legitimate goods to spot counterfeits.

Chris Clague, the editor of the report, says: “For all the benefits technology can bring to legitimate society, each new advance creates new opportunities for criminals to exploit and that of course include the international terrorist organisations and transnational organised crime networks that engage in illicit trade. As always when it comes to illicit trade, there are examples of cooperation and trust-building between the private sector, governments and international enforcement agencies, but there is still a lot of work left to be done.”

Download full report here.

About The Economist Intelligence Unit

The EIU is the thought leadership, research and analysis division of The Economist Group and the world leader in global business intelligence for executives. We uncover novel and forward-looking perspectives with access to over 650 expert analysts and editors across 200 countries worldwide. More information can be found on www.eiuperspectives.economist.com. Follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

About Philip Morris International

Philip Morris International (PMI) is leading a transformation in the tobacco industry to create a smoke-free future and ultimately replace cigarettes with smoke-free products to the benefit of adults who would otherwise continue to smoke, society, the company and its shareholders. Through multidisciplinary capabilities in product development, state-of-the-art facilities and scientific substantiation, PMI aims to ensure that its smoke-free products, while not risk-free, meet adult consumer preferences and rigorous regulatory requirements.

For more information, please visit www.pmi.com and www.pmiscience.com.

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