Europe's police officers need to become "as tech-savvy" as the criminals they are trying to catch, its policing agency urged Thursday, saying it had identified some 5,000 gangs operating across the continent.
"Technology is a key component of most, if not all criminal activities carried out by organised crime groups in the EU," Europol director Rob Wainwright said at the launch of a new report, aimed at helping to shape European crime-fighting policy for the next four years.
"Policing has got to adapt and follow in the same way. We've got to have police officers with digital, forensic analytical capabilities. They have got to get used to following crime across the Darknet, however challenging that is," Wainwright said, speaking to AFP on the sidelines of the report's launch.
The Darknet is a hidden online arena notoriously used by criminals to trade weapons, drugs and child pornography.
"The point we're making today is that the investigators of all forms of serious and organised crime now need to be as tech savvy as the specialists they used to rely on from the back room in the past," he added.
The 60-page report, called the Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA), is the first since 2013.
It forms the "heart" of an EU-wide policy on the fight against crime for the next four years, the 28-member bloc's security commissioner Julian King said.
The report, released at Europol's fortress-like headquarters in The Hague, said some 5,000 organised crime groups have been identified in Europe and were being investigated.
The number has jumped from 3,600 in 2013 -- "primarily a reflection of a much improved intelligence picture," Wainwright said.
"The rate of technological innovation and the ability of organised criminals to adapt to these technologies have also been increasing over recent years," Wainwright said.
"Developments such as the emergence of the online trade in illicit goods and services are set to result in significant shifts in criminal markets," he said.
The report said although migrant smuggling and drug trade remain Europe's largest criminal markets, "emerging phenomena such as the online trade in illicit goods and services may eclipse these markets in size and profits in the future."
It pointed out that online shopping "in the legal economy has had a profound impact on business models, shopping experiences and customer expectations."
"This development has been mirrored in the online trade of illicit goods as criminals, like legitimate traders, look to opportunities online to grow their businesses," the report said.jhe/jkb/pvh