Data analytics

Big data analysis enlisted for Justice investigations

The Justice Department has announced it plans to crack down on financial fraudsters and dark web drug dealers by analyzing complex sets of big data, illustrating the increasing importance of technology that can sift through mountains of data to and uncover large-scale, secretive crimes.

The Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement (J-CODE) team will go after online “darknet” opioid dealers.

“Criminals think that they are safe on the darknet, but they are in for a rude awakening,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions  said in a Jan. 29 announcement in front of the U.S. Courthouse in Pittsburgh. Agents from the FBI and Justice Department and intelligence analysts will work on the J-CODE team, he said, to further infiltrate secretive online opioid sellers.

The new J-Code team is likely to work alongside another team of big data analysts unveiled by the Justice Department a few months ago. The Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, announced by Sessions last August, uses prescription data to identify and prosecute individuals who are contributing to the opioid crisis.

Last August, Sessions said that team would sort through prescription data that physicians submit to the Drug Enforcement Agency on opioid subscriptions to find tell-tale data points, such as physicians writing opioid prescriptions at rates that far exceeds their peers; how many of a doctor's patients died within 60 days of an opioid prescription; the average age of the patients receiving these prescriptions; pharmacies dispensing disproportionately large amounts of opioids; and regional hot spots for opioid issues.

Both teams will be key to a 45-day crackdown on prescription drug diversion from pharmacies and prescribers that dispense “unusual or disproportionate amounts of drugs,” Sessions said.

DEA said it collects around 80 million transaction reports every year from manufacturers and distributors of prescription drugs. Sessions said the DEA will aggregate the data to find patterns, trends, statistical outliers -- and put them into targeting packages.

In a separate announcement on Jan. 29, another top Justice Department official said agency investigators leveraged big data analytics to crack down on sprawling financial fraud activity.

Acting Assistant Attorney General John Cronan said in a statement that data analytics could be an equalizer in finding “identity spoofing” in an ocean of data from financial markets, and called this takedown the largest futures market criminal enforcement action in the criminal division’s history.

Cronan said DOJ's data analysis had led to charges against eight people in six different cases, across three federal districts. The charges concern alleged roles in manipulating futures markets for precious metals, as well as the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, and NASDAQ E-mini futures contracts.

In financial markets, “spoofing” is an illegal order for a futures contract that the trader never intended to be executed. Spoofed orders are mostly immediately cancelled -- sometimes within seconds  --  and are never filled.

However, the action artificially stirs the market and spurs trade by other traders, skewing markets, according to the department. The trades are hidden by an ocean of other trades and can be hard to detect. New data capabilities, Cronan said, allowed the agency to winnow that data down and find the alleged manipulators "through sophisticated analysis of market-level data."

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN. 

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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