In modern digital world wildlife law enforcement officers are fighting the wildlife traffickers on two fronts: Natural Landscape Front & Cyber Landscape Front. Social Media sites, Instant Mesaging Apps, Dark Web, e-Commerce sites, Online forums & communities etc. have provided the global marketplace to the traffickers for illegal trade of wildlife contrabands with anonymity and privacy using fake accounts. Digital Tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), TOR Browser, end to end encrypted email services have been used by wildlife cyber traffickers to hide their real identity and thereby posing challenges to the enforcement officers in tracing and apprehending these wildlife criminals. Closed Groups on Social Media sites like Facebook & Instant Messaging Apps like Whatsapp are also operating for dealing in wildlife contrabands. Infiltrating these Closed Groups is also a challenge for wildlife law enforcement officials.
To combat wildlife cyber crimes and to shut down these wildlife cyber marketplaces, law enforcement officials need to play the role of Digital Detective. Through Undercover or Covert Account on Digital Platforms, Digital Detectives can monitor, investigate and gather evidences regarding illegal wildlife trade taking place on various digital platforms. These undercover accounts can also help wildlife enforcement officials in infiltrating into online forums, communities and groups engaged in lellgal wildlife trade; in identifying the individuals; in negotiating with them as a buyer; in fixing the deal; in conducting undercover operation; in apprehending and prosecuting these wildlife cyber traffickers.
However, creating and operating an undercover account successfully on digital landcape by wildlife enforcement officer is not that easy as it appears to be. It involves several steps which may be summarized as follows:
- The first and foremost requirement is that wildlife law enforcement officer must obtain authorization from competent authority of his Agency to create and operate undercover account.
- Creation & operation of such undercover account must strictly be in adherence to the laws governing online investigation & privacy in respective jurisdiction.
- To register the undercover account on any social media site/digital platform, wildlife enforcent officer must use secure and end to end encrypted email service. This email should not have any identifiable information which may link the officer to his real identity. The undercover Digital Detective must not use this email for any other purpose.
- Next step is the creation of realistic undercover profile. Wildlife Digital Detective should never create a username or use a profile picture or cover photo which may in any way reveal his real identity. Profile informations like brief bio, interests etc. should match his undercover digital persona. Such digital persona must be relevant to wildlife and related issues only. It will provide authenticity and genuinity to his undercover persona and not raise any suspicion.
- Maintaining anonymity and privacy is of paramount importance for Digital Detectives to ensure that their cover is not blown. He must use VPNs, Virtual Machines, end to end encrypted email and instant messaging or VOIP (voice over internet protocol) services to maximize his privacy and anonymity. Additionally, he should never make any friends who are in friends' list of his real account or who are from law enforcement field. He should also never disclose his real name, educational qualifications, educational institutions, address, location or family details. He should never share any content, image or video which may have some identifiable information to reveal his real identity. He must also ensure to remove the metadata of images and videos taken by him before sharing on his undercover account.
- Wildlife Digital Detective should start by connecting with those individuals who share the same interests.
- Establishing his credibility amongst the wildlife cyber traffickers and winning their trust may take time. Therefore, Digital Detective should be patient. He must actively engage with his target individuals by sharing content related to wildlife and prticipating in related discussions. Once he earns their trust and builds good online relationships, he can easily infiltrate into online communities, forums, groups etc. which are dealing in wildlife contrabands.
- Considering the volatility of digital evidences, Wildlife Digital Detective should also have a ready Template to document or record all the conversations, messages, interactions, images, videos, contact details i.e. mobile numbers, email IDs, websites' URLs etc. which he finds relevant for law enforcemnt purpose to use them as evidence against the wildlife traffickers.
- Undercover wildlife cyber crime investigator should always keep his supervising authority informed about the developments and seek guidance as and when required for future course of action.
- Once the Wildlife Digital Detective has completely infiltrated into the world of cyber wildlife crimes, he must start negotiatiing the deal for purchase of wildlife contrabands, set up the trap, arrest and prosecute the wildlife traffickers in the court of law.
- Once the objective of the undercover account is achieved, Digital Detective must deactivate the same.
In a nutshell, Wildlife Digital Detectives, through their undercover accounts, can play a significant role in combating wildlife cyber crimes, identifying & dismantling wildlife poaching and illegal trade networks, rescuing endangered species and enforcing wildlife protection laws in a more effective manner in digital age.