Synthetic drugs a rising challenge, collaboration among nations must to counter menace: US official | Interview

Robert Leventhal, division chief in the US Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Photo: Onmanorama

Kochi: The synthetic drug menace is a global challenge and countries have to come together to fight it, a top US official has said. Robert Leventhal, division chief in the US Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, shared the concerns over the growing drug crisis and cyber crimes in an interview with Onmanorama on the sidelines of c0c0n '23, the 16th edition of an international cyber security conference which concluded here on Saturday.

Addressing the meeting, Leventhal flagged the continued rise of online child sexual exploitation throughout the world. “Cases have increased exponentially along with the pandemic, and remain a major online problem in nearly every country in the world. One expert organisation, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) saw a global increase of 97 per cent from 2019 to 2020 in reports of online enticement. Earlier this month, at the UN in NY, UNODC indicated that online child sexual exploitation and abuse increased 35 per cent in the last year,” he said.

Citing data relating to online child sexual exploitation from his country, he said no country is immune to these crimes. “The FBI and DHS identified at least 7,000 reports and 3,000 victims, mostly boys, of financially motivated sextortion in the US in 2022. More than a dozen of the victims were reported to have committed suicide,” he said.

In this interview, he speaks about the rising need for global collaboration to fight cyber crimes, the challenge of curbing synthetic drug menace, and more. Edited excerpts:

It is said that the cyber world is a borderless one. So are the crimes committed in cyberspace. Where is the global collaboration to fight online crimes at present?

I think there’s a great challenge because cyberspace offers so many opportunities for communication, commerce, collaboration and social connection. However, it also offers channels for illegalities. We focus both on cyber crimes, like the use of malware, and on cyber-enabled crimes. In many cases, states have to collaborate to be able to find digital evidence even if it’s a physical crime.

There’s an understanding among countries that this has to be a priority and you need to work together. It’s a work in progress. Many countries, including but not limited to the US, recognise this as a challenge. They are working through entities like Interpol to collaborate on operations and to share information about individual cases. Also, countries like the US and others are offering peer learning. They are sharing their good practices or even offering training to other countries because you hope that there are capacity voices all around the world and we have to rely on each other. But, the criminals are clever. They are technologically sophisticated and we really have to push ourselves to operate across borders to be able to challenge them.

The fact that the Kerala police have convened this conference for so many years and it attracts people from many other countries is a good sign and we are really glad to be here to learn and to share what we have learned.

A major theme of this conference is online child sexual abuse and you spoke in detail about it. What are the best practices by the US to tackle such cases?

Kids these days can access the internet through their phones, computers and tablets, no matter their age. So we know this problem is increasing. The US has made it a policy priority internally. President Biden created a task force in the middle of 2022 specifically to focus on this issue and to lay out a blueprint for the individual ministries to take practical steps. The areas which I think are important for any government to consider are making it a policy priority because when your leadership says this is a priority, that forces you to work together across ministries and forces you to pay attention and use resources. So that’s a great thing.

Kids can get trapped in a cycle of shame and confusion. They don’t know where to report. They are held back by their fear of telling their families, caregivers, or the law enforcement. So making people aware of what they can do to be safer online is important. Victims should be told that it’s not their fault.

On the collaboration between the US and India in tackling criminals.

We collaborate with India on so many issues. As strategic partners, we share values and interests. Kerala, for example, is working with an international non-governmental organisation called the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children which is providing some training and access to tours. It is an independent organisation, but it receives support from the State Department for training and capacity building.

Then there's a US-India counter-narcotics working group. So the two countries meet periodically. We met a couple of months ago in Washington to talk about law enforcement collaboration, regulatory reforms, and public health.

Cross-border drug trafficking is a major challenge India faces. The US too faces similar trouble. How do you look at the crisis?

Once again, it’s an issue. Especially with the emerging challenge of synthetic drugs, international cooperation is very important. We still have challenges with plant-based drugs like opium and cocaine. But plant-based drugs have a definite point of origin where the underlying plants are grown. Synthetic drugs can be synthesised in almost any place. The particles come from one country and the synthesis can happen in another or a third country. Some of them are quite easy to synthesise. Some of them can be sold in extremely small quantities and it’s still very profitable. Sharing information among countries about which drugs are being sold, how they are moving, and what money laundering techniques the peddlers are using is very important.

Online financial crimes are also on the rise everywhere. Last month in Kochi, there was an incident in which a family of four died by suicide due to alleged harassment by online loan sharks. How’s the situation in your country?

Unfortunately, the online creativity of criminals is a constant challenge. Ransomware is something that we have been hit particularly hard by over the last few years. Criminals have been hitting operations of hospitals, education institutions and so on. We created task forces focusing on such cases, but again, because this is an issue that happens trans-nationally, we have included an emphasis in our cybercrime conversations about capacity building with other countries. Because they are specialised crimes, special training is required to tackle them.

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