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Scientists unveil new DNA kit designed to thwart wildlife traffickers

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thwart wildlife smugglers

Researchers have developed a portable DNA test designed to help border control officers identify animal and plant species being trafficked through customs checks by wildlife smugglers.

The Lab-in-a-Box portable DNA barcoding kit, developed by the international Barcode of Life (iBoL) project, was unveiled on Monday at Kruger National Park in South Africa, which is home to a number of endangered species targeted by traffickers.

The device is designed to identify plant and animal species by analysing key points on their genome, making the process cheaper and quicker for customs officers in developing countries, who often lack the expertise or resources required to accurately determine the origin of items being transported by wildlife smugglers.

According to the academics who developed the kit, it can identify species within a few hours, potentially preventing genuine wildlife shipments being held up for days while tests are carried out, and allowing border guards to take swift action against suspected traffickers.

Customs officers in developing countries often have trouble identifying animal or plant parts they suspect may have come from endangered species, partly on account of the fact that smugglers go to great lengths to make any contraband they are transporting indistinguishable from permitted items.

As well as stopping endangered species being smuggling out of countries, the kit is intended to combat a range of other wildlife crimes, including the trafficking of invasive species into countries.

Professor Paul Hebert, Founder of the iBOL project and Director of the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph in Canada, commented: “We know that many of the species that share our planet are in serious decline – from large vertebrates to small insects, from canopy trees to tiny understory plants.

“By coupling the power of DNA barcoding to identify species with portability, Lab-in-a-Box makes it possible for anyone to identify any species anywhere. It is certain to improve our capacity to care for the species that not only enliven our planet, but provide essential ecosystem services.”

The World Wildlife Fund has warned that the planet is facing a huge spike in wildlife crime, noting that more than 23 metric tons of illicit ivory was seized was seized in just 13 raids in 2011.

In May last year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s inaugural World Wildlife Crime Report revealed how the illicit animal trade is causing great harm to the environment and fuelling conflict around the globe.

Animal trafficking has become the fourth most valuable illicit trade on the planet after drugs, people smuggling and weapons, and has attracted the attention of organised criminal gangs and terrorist groups.

According to the World Economic Forum, the trade is worth as much as $23 billion annually.

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Internet watchdog took down record number of child sex abuse images last year

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internet watchdog took down record number of child sex abuse images

The UK-based Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has revealed that it took down more than 100,000 webpages containing sexual imagery of children and young people aged under 18 last year.

In its latest annual report, the IWF, which works to remove child abuse images from the internet, said it discovered and took down a record 105,047 webpages featuring indecent material last year.

Many of those pages contained hundreds of indecent images and videos, it said.

That figure was up from the 78,589 pages the organisation identified and removed from the internet in 2017.

The IWF said the increase was in part thanks to its use of improved technology to help its analysts speed up the detection and assessment of child abuse material.

Figures for 2018 show that the amount of indecent images hosted in Britain has reached the lowest level ever recorded by the group.

Just 0.04% of the global total dealt with by the IWF last year was hosted in the UK, which was down from 18% in 1996.

In contrast, nearly half (47%) of the illegal content reported to the organisation last year was hosted in the Netherlands.

The IWF said it has offered to provide support to a Dutch organisation that deals with indecent images of children online.

Four-fifths of the child sex abuse images processed by the IWF last year were found to be hosted in European countries.

Over the first six months of last year, the IWF discovered that more than a quarter (27%) of the content it assessed was “self-generated”, and predominantly involved girls aged between 11 and 13 who had been manipulated  into livestreaming images of themselves from their bedrooms or elsewhere in a home setting.

In a statement issued to coincide with the launch of the report, IWF CEO Susie Hargreaves commented: “Despite us removing more and more images than ever before, and despite creating and using some of the world’s leading technology, it’s clear that this problem is far from being solved.

“The cause of the problem is the demand. Unfortunately, and as the police tell us often, there are 100,000 people sitting in the UK right now demanding images of the abuse of children.

“This is a global challenge and no doubt every country’s police force will have their own estimations of this criminality.

“With this continued demand for images of child rape, it’s a constant battle.”

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US authorities could reclassify synthetic opioid fentanyl as ‘weapon of mass destruction’

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US authorities could reclassify synthetic opioid fentanyl

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has suggested that synthetic opioid fentanyl could be reclassified as “a weapon of mass destruction”, according to an internal memo obtained by military news site Task & Purpose.

In the memo, the DHS argues that the toxicity of the drug, which is said to be as many as 100 times more potent than morphine, makes it a suitable candidate to be categorised as a non-conventional chemical weapon, which would allow law enforcement agencies greater power to inspect suspected shipments and develop new tools with which to detect them.

“Fentanyl’s high toxicity and increasing availability are attractive to threat actors seeking non-conventional materials for a chemical weapons attack,” DHS Assistant Secretary for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction James McDonnell wrote in the memo.

“In July 2018, the FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate assessed that… fentanyl is very likely a viable option for a chemical weapon attack by extremists or criminals.”

McDonnell notes that human consumption of as little as two milligrams of the synthetic opioid can result in death.

The memo only focuses on quantities of the drug that could be used to create mass-casualty weapons, but fails to outline how much fentanyl would be required to produce such a threat.

Going on to make clear that reclassifying the drugs could help curb its role in America’s spiralling opioid crisis, McDonnell writes: “[M]any activities, such as support to fentanyl interdiction and detection efforts, would tangentially benefit broader DHS and interagency counter-opioid efforts.”

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that US overdose deaths linked to fentanyl rocketed between 2011 and 2016, increasing from fewer than 1,700 to over 18,000 over the five-year period.

Back in October 2017, US President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis engulfing America a public health emergency, and outlined a series of measures designed to clamp down on the importation of cheap synthetics such as fentanyl from China and parts of Latin America.

Months later, Trump signed a bill designed to tackle the issue into law, providing Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers with $15 million of extra funding to be spent on new screening devices and lab equipment.

Taking to Twitter, the President wrote: “Together, we are committed to doing everything we can to combat the deadly scourge of drug addiction and overdose in the United States!”

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Dread Pirate Roberts 2.0 jailed for running second iteration of Silk Road dark web marketplace

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Dread Pirate Roberts 2.0 jailed for running second iteration of Silk Road

A jobless university drop-out from the UK city of Liverpool has been jailed after being convicted of running the Silk Road 2.0 dark web marketplace while collecting indecent images of children.

Liverpool Crown Court heard that Thomas White, 24, helped run the original Silk Road marketplace until it was closed down by FBI investigators in 2013.

Within a month of its shutdown, White had launched Silk Road 2.0, which like its predecessor was used by vendors to offer illicit items including drugs, weapons, cyber crime tools and stolen credit card details on the dark web.

White, who abandoned his accounting degree at Liverpool John Moores University after just one term, rented a £1,700 ($2,225)-a-month apartment on the waterfront in Liverpool city centre at the time of his arrest, despite ostensibly being unemployed.

While investigators from the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) said they could not be sure how much money White made while operating Silk Road 2.0, it is estimated that illegal goods worth some $96 million were sold on the platform, on which he would take a commission of between 1% and 5%.

During a raid on White’s apartment, police discovered a laptop computer under his bed, which was found to contain 464 indecent images of children in the most serious category.

It later emerged that White had discussed setting up a hidden website on which to publish child abuse material during an online chat with a Silk Road 2.0 administrator.

Like Ross Ulbricht, who was jailed for life with no parole for running the original Silk Road marketplace in 2015, White used the online alias Dread Pirate Roberts, a reference to a fictional character in the novel the Princess Bride by William Goldman.

White was sentenced to more than five years behind bars.

Speaking after he was jailed, Ian Glover from the NCA said: “White was a well-regarded member of the original Silk Road hierarchy.

“He used this to his advantage when the site was closed down.

“We believe he profited significantly from his crimes which will now be subject to a proceeds of crime investigation.”

Separately, one of Britain’s most senior cyber detectives has warned that Europeans gangs are targeting autistic gamers in the hope of turning them into the next generation of hackers.

Peter Goodman, National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for cyber crime, told the Press Association that more than eight out of 10 (82%) of young people being enlisted by online criminals develop skills while gaming, with many of those targeted on the autistic spectrum.

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