Philip Hammond

The City watchdog has urged banks to track down criminals with artificial intelligence and machine learning rather than just throwing cash at the problem to “show willing” or appear virtuous.

In a message that comes a day after the foreign affairs select committee said the Government “cannot afford to turn a blind eye” to criminals using London to launder ill-gotten funds, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said banks should not be afraid to try new technology.

“Excessive risk aversion is not going to help us win an arms race that is so heavily rooted in automation. We need to turn technology against criminals,” urged FCA executive Megan Butler.

She said many banks still employ thousands of “checkers checking the checkers” to manually sift through high-risk transactions when intelligent technology could be used to spot suspicious transactions in real time instead.

While she admitted that there were a number of obstacles for the industry, with some banks trying to integrate legacy IT systems dating back to the 1970s, she said properly tested technology could significantly reduce firms’ exposure to risks.

British banks spend around £5bn a year combating financial crime, a billion more than the UK spends on prisons, with more than 1.1m prospective customers last year refused services due to financial crime concerns.

“There’s no expectation on firms to spend money just to ‘show willing’ or as a way of ‘virtue signalling’,” she said. “The international priority is overwhelmingly on efficacy. Not overheads.”

However she made clear that the FCA would not let any financial institutions off the hook if they try out a piece of technology that goes awry.

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