Research: How are digital and communication technologies exploited to facilitate human trafficking?
The human trafficking business has flourished during the past few years, thanks to the wide use of digital and networking technologies. Even though the exploitation of digital technologies in human trafficking represents a growing global problem, few research studies have been conducted to assess the implications of the trafficking-digital technology nexus. As such, little is known regarding how digital and networking technologies are being exploited to facilitate human trafficking.
A recently published research paper aims at broadening our understanding of the present role of digital and networking technologies in human trafficking businesses. The paper relied on reviewing existent literature and interviewing convicted offenders to formulate an understanding of how technology is being leveraged to facilitate the human trafficking business. Throughout this article, we will summarize the most important information presented via this paper.
Scope of discussion: human trafficking for sexual exploitation:
To narrow the research’s scope, the paper focused on a single aspect of trafficking: commercial sexual exploitation of minors (< 18 years) to meet the US based demand. Even though it is inarguable that human trafficking represents a worldwide problem, victims can be from any age group, and sexual victimization is just a part of a much bigger problem of victimization (including labor trafficking, issues related to migration, and organized crime), authors of the paper chose to narrow the scope of their analysis for pragmatic reasons. However, it is necessary to note that it is impossible to draw a clear line separating labor trafficking from sex trafficking. Also, US based networks of organized crime often extend beyond the US borders.
Children’s commercial sexual exploitation experiences are not identical. There is a big difference between an 8-year-old who has been kidnapped and sold by pimps in the US and a 16-year-old who advertises their sexual services online. Accordingly, it is pivotal to emphasize that commercial sexual exploitation of minors does not represent a homogenous dynamic.
The process of human trafficking:
As shown in figure (1), the process of human trafficking is comprised of four main stages: recruitment, transportation, exploitation, and financial management. We will describe each stage and present how digital technologies are being exploited to facilitate it.
Figure (1): The process of human trafficking
1- Recruitment and abduction of potential victims:
Many minors get entangled in human trafficking criminal networks through abduction, blackmail, and social coercion. Vulnerable and poor populations are usually targeted. The recruitment stage sometimes takes years and years of grooming. Evidence and confessions of convicts show that social media is often exploited by perpetrators to target potential victims. Social media and other online platforms may be used for coercion, grooming, or other means of deceit (e.g. a “modeling agency” that is used as a cover by the perpetrator for recruitment). Online content, such as personal videos and images, can be used for blackmailing victims, who may be threatened by online exposure if they choose not to comply.
Transportation and housing of victims involve coordination between multiple perpetrators. When new identities are created, or when victims are drugged, collaboration with other criminal factions is often involved. There is little information regarding how perpetrators coordinate their actions or share information, yet it is likely that their activities often leave digital and online traces. These traces include mobile phone calls, credit card transactions, GPS patterns, IP addresses, plane tickets, apartment rentals, etc. However, most criminals work hard to render their activities untraceable.
Technology, especially the internet, is often exploited to advertise and facilitate the sale of the victim. Pimps often market the victims online. Social networks, niche services and darknet hidden services are exploited in this stage. Occasionally, the selling of human trafficking victims is facilitated by other forms of sexual services, such as escort services. However, most of what occurs online is somewhat encoded. Advertisements use certain code words, e.g. “200 roses” is used as a code for price and “new in town” is a widely used code for referring to an underage victim. Cell phones are usually used to finalize sales.
Customers, who are often referred to as “johns”, also use digital technologies to find trafficking victims. When using the internet for purchases, “johns” will often remain relatively undetected by law enforcement agencies who lack the needed digital forensics tools. However, “johns” will leave behind tons of digital traces if they use the surface internet for purchases, especially if they are not tech savvy and do not know how to obfuscate their trails. Johns will also face other legal issues, including facing charges linked to child pornography.
4- Financial management:
Human trafficking is inarguably a highly profitable business, which is often associated with other illegal activities such as money laundering and illicit drug trafficking. Cash transactions are untraceable when compared to digital and online payments. Credit card transactions can be traced and used to construct meaningful patterns. When purchases are made online, they usually involve payment processors such as PayPal, and the account holder can be easily identified. Sometimes, payments are made using non-monetary digital items such as gift cards, video game reward points, etc.
Cryptocurrencies, especially bitcoin, have been recently reported to be used as a payment method, especially for purchases made by tech savvy “johns” over the dark web. Bitcoin payments are very hard to trace, especially if made over the Tor network.
No one can argue that digital technologies have greatly benefited the human trafficking business during the past few years. Law enforcement agencies must work hard on developing the necessary means to identify the exploitation of the internet and digital payment technologies in human trafficking businesses.