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April 18, 2014

Feds Look to Big Data to Combat Smuggling

Law enforcement is emerging as one of the latest big data applications. The latest example is detecting drug kingpins who generate huge amounts of “bulk cash,” the huge stacks of currency notes accumulated by criminal syndicates peddling narcotics. Street transactions generated huge amounts of cash in a variety of denominations that drug lords must find ways to illegally launder.

The scale of problem of tracking all that cash smuggled across boarders is vexing for drug and border enforcement agencies like the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection unit. Over a two-year period ending in February 2011, U.S. border agents intercepted an estimated $67 million worth of bulk cash, most of it being smuggled across the U.S.-Mexican border.

Meanwhile, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested more than 500 individual smugglers and seized more than $59 million in bulk currency.

The federal government estimates that these seizures represent little more than 1 percent of the billions of dollars of bulk cash smuggled into the U.S. via Mexico annually.

With custom agents and border guards already spread thin, these agencies are now looking to big data and analytics tools to help stem the flood of bulk cash into the U.S. where is it eventually laundered.

Among the possible data sets law enforcers could use in their battle against drug money are criminal and financial intelligence, motor vehicle data, travel and trade records and, presumably, cellphone metadata. Experts say drug enforcers could also leverage predictive and social media analytics along with financial fraud monitoring.

In the meantime, the U.S. has launched initiatives like regional task forces and a National Bulk Cash Smuggling Center operated by an investigations unit within Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Indeed, Congress criminalized the smuggling of large amounts of cash as part of the USA Patriot Act.

While big data efforts targeting bulk cash are just getting off the ground, Immigration and Customs has developed data analytics tools for other applications like preventing visa fraud. These preliminary efforts have focused on incorporating predictive analysis and data visualization to track down fraudsters.

In the meantime, emerging predictive analytics software could help uncover unseen patterns of behavior or link activities to discern patterns used by bulk cash smugglers. Presumably, big data analytics also could be used to plow through all the serial numbers on seized bulk cash to ferret out additional financial intelligence.

“This same technology could revolutionize law enforcement decision-making at the border by increasing our odds of identifying, intercepting, and seizing bulk cash,” argued tech blogger John Cassara in a recent blog post.

Indeed, those overseeing the largely unsuccessful “War on Drugs” are beginning to borrow phrases the Defense Department like “force multipliers” as they seek to enlist big data in the effort to stem the flood of illicit cash pouring across the southern U.S. border.

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