A network science approach to covert crime

Research news

12 October 2023


  • Deakin scientists have received an Office of National Intelligence grant to further research into network science.
  • Network science can be a powerful and effective means of tracking, understanding and disrupting covert crime.
  • Led by Deakin’s Professor Chad Whelan, the research team are looking to support the intelligence industry to counter organised crime, extremist, and cyber-criminal groups during the three-year project.

How do we disrupt the harmful activities of organised crime, extremist, and cyber-criminal groups? Network science may hold the key.

Covert crime, often carried out by networks of cyber and organised criminals operating in the shadows of society, has a profound and far-reaching impact on individuals and communities worldwide. These covert crimes include illicit drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and ransomware attacks, all of which inflict significant social and economic harms across Australia and the world.

A new research project, led by Professor Chad Whelan from Deakin University’s Centre for Cyber Resilience and Trust (CREST) and Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation aims to leverage the untapped potential of network science to uncover more effective intelligence collection and disruption strategies to counter covert crime.

Backed by more than half a million dollars in funding from the Office of National Intelligence, the team includes Deakin Professor David Bright, and University of Adelaide's Professor Matthew Roughan and Professor Lewis Mitchell.

Deakin academics will capitalise on the latest advances in network science to understand covert crime, including cyber crime

A new approach to covert crime

Network perspectives have proven useful for analysing and disrupting a wide range of crime and security problems, including studying the internal dynamics of criminal organisations, understanding trafficking of illicit drugs and other illicit commodities, as well as revealing the hidden structure of terrorist networks and how they operate and behave.

Research has demonstrated the applications of network science for understanding how covert networks form and evolve, identifying the importance of key actors, interconnections between groups, and methods of disrupting these covert networks at individual and organisational levels.

However, as Professor Bright explains, most research to date has been applied to relatively small groups, is cross-sectional, or based on specific terrorist groups or events, using static methodological and analytical techniques.

‘Our work is about pushing the field of covert networks forward in ways that will produce a number benefits,’ Professor Bright says.

‘The research has two primary aims. The first is improved techniques, drawn from network science, to help focus intelligence collection and analysis.

‘The second is to use real-world data to create simulated covert networks to experimentally test a range of disruption strategies informed by network science.’

The three-year project was just one of seven to receive funding through the 2023 National Intelligence and Security Discovery Research Grants scheme, cementing Deakin as a national leader in cybercrime and security research. In 2023, the Australian Research Magazine listed Deakin as one of the country's top five universities tackling cybersecurity challenges.

With its transdisciplinary focus, Professor Whelan said Deakin is well-placed to help move Australia’s intelligence sector into the machine learning age.

‘Covert networks operate discreetly, avoid detection, and maintain efficiency in their operations – they are often sophisticated organisations that are evolving quickly. We have an exciting opportunity to utilise the latest advances in network science to optimise data collection, analysis, target selection, and to predict the consequences of law enforcement operations designed to dismantle covert networks.

‘By conducting analyses and simulations across groups and different contexts encountered by intelligence analysts and law enforcement agencies in the real world, we can increase the likelihood of success against these covert networks.

‘Enhancing intelligence collection and network disruption promises significant social, economic, and political benefits to Australia and its intelligence partners globally.’

About Professor Chad Whelan

Professor Chad Whelan is Professor of Criminology and Deputy Director of Deakin’s Centre for Cyber Resilience and Trust. He principally conducts research in cybercrime, organised crime, and security.

  • He has received numerous research grants worth over $5 million.
  • Over 50 research publications.
  • Author of a number of books including Policing Across Organisational Boundaries: Developments in Theory and Practice (Routledge, 2019, with Benoît Dupont and Peter Manning) and Organised Crime and Law Enforcement: A Network Perspective (Routledge, 2021; with Professor David Bright).
  • Research has appeared in many criminology and management journals, including British Journal of Criminology, Global Crime, and Policing and Society.
  • Teaches across the undergraduate and postgraduate criminology program.
  • Senior Fellow, Advance HE (previously Higher Education Academy), United Kingdom), 2019.
  • Deakin University Excellence in Teaching - Vice-Chancellor's Award for Teacher of the Year, 2013.
  • Involved in related funded research projects with the Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre, and the Australian and Victorian Governments.

About Professor David Bright

Professor David Bright is Professor of Criminology in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. He conducts research on criminal networks, organised crime, and illicit firearms markets.

  • Chief Investigator on five consecutive Australian Research Council (ARC) funded projects in addition to projects funded by industry and government worth over $3 million
  • Over 70 research publications.
  • Author of Organised Crime and Law Enforcement: A Network Perspective (Routledge, 2021; with Professor Chad Whelan), and editor of Illicit firearms markets and organised crime: Global, regional and local perspectives (forthcoming, Oxford University Press)
  • Research has appeared in high quality criminology and sociology journals, including Quantitative Criminology, Social Networks, and Global Crime.
  • Has experience teaching undergraduate and postgraduate criminology programs at UNSW, Flinders University, and Deakin University
  • Winner of Vice-Chancellor’s Innovation in Teaching Award, Flinders University, 2019
  • Appointed to the ARC College of Experts
  • Registered Forensic Psychologist

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The Australian Research Magazine listed Deakin as one of the country's top five universities tackling cybersecurity challenges.

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The Australian Research Magazine listed Deakin as one of the country's top five universities tackling cybersecurity challenges.

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