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CALCE and START co-host Intersections of Illicit Trafficking and Counterfeit Parts Workshop

In October, START and the Center of Advanced Life Cycle Engineering (CALCE) co-hosted the virtual Intersections of Illicit Trafficking and Counterfeit Parts Workshop, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

This workshop aimed to gather social scientists, engineers, law enforcement, policymakers and industry professionals to build connections and identify gaps, with individual sessions focused on modalities of trafficking, such as arms trafficking and construction, wildlife trafficking, labor trafficking and narcotics manufacturing and trafficking. The conference ended with a convocation meant to sum up the presentations and allow the wider group to discuss new-found connections and overlapping priorities.

“Today’s workshop brings together government, industry and civil society to explore connections between illicit trafficking and the counterfeit parts supply chain, bringing together people who don’t normally talk to one another,” START Geospatial Research Unit (GRU) Director Dr. Marcus Boyd said.

The workshop focused on the disruption of the supply chains for counterfeit hardware used in critical systems. Critical systems are systems associated with human safety (such as transportation and medical services), the delivery of critical services (such as infrastructure and energy generation), global economic stability and important humanitarian and military missions.

These systems are costly to procure and are generally expected to have a long service life, and as a result they must be supported for long periods of time.

But counterfeit parts manufacturing is only one part of the issue. While the world’s largest firms have cracked down on illicit and illegal labor practices, illicit and illegal labor remains a key part of innumerable supply chains.

Narcotics production is a hazardous criminal enterprise, but increased professionalization and the availability of quality parts and chemical precursors from China have allowed narcotrafficking cartels to manufacture massive quantities of fentanyl.

Weapons traffickers and criminal entities now use additive manufacturing for weapons development and modifications. Trafficking of wildlife, agricultural products and animal parts also present various serious concerns, including the introduction of invasive species to the spread, and novel development, of viruses.

Often, these differing types of criminal behavior are siloed, but as transnational criminal entities continue to replicate modern business practices, they are evolving into poly-crime entities.

These poly-crime entities bridge different lines of the trafficking business. For example, humans are trafficked for forced or illegal labor, and people have been trafficked and forced to serve as caretakers of illegal cannabis plants. Mexican drug cartels have also purchased 3D printers and hired engineers to develop weapons modifications, up-armor vehicles, and develop manufacturing techniques that increase the potency of various narcotics.

“The kind of cross pollination between engineers and social scientists in this workshop is rare, we don’t see this as often as we should,” Boyd said. “It really is fantastic, in thinking through the challenges that we have when it comes to transnational criminality.”