How to combat human trafficking in the digital era

Human traffickers are using increasingly modern communication technologies to exploit their victims multiple times over: from advertising and recruiting victims, to blackmailing them with photos and videos to control their movements. To counter this threat, we have to use the great advantage of shared intelligence and collect more digital evidence to connect the dots between national and international investigations, said Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency.

In its article released on October 18 to mark the EU Anti-Trafficking Day 2020, Europol shed light in "the challenges of countering human trafficking in the digital era."

Modern communication technologies – namely the internet, social media, and mobile applications – have significantly impacted how organised crime groups involved in international trafficking in human beings operate, said the article. Technology has broadened criminals’ ability to traffic human beings for different types of exploitation, including sexual and labour exploitation, the removal of organs, illegal adoption of children and forced marriages.

The advantages of technology for traffickers include increased anonymity, the ability to take part in real-time yet encrypted communications, the possibility of reaching a broader audience (in terms of victims and clients), geographical mobility, and the ability to control victims from a distance. Criminals also capitalised on the boom of e-commerce culture and on legislative discrepancies in regulating and providing data. Today technology is exploited by traffickers during every phase of sexual exploitation, from the recruitment and advertisement of victims, to blackmailing them with photos and videos and controlling their movements. The financial management of the criminal business is also often done online.

Technology affords traffickers the ability to recruit victims without face-to-face interaction, thereby reducing the risk of being detected by law enforcement agencies. Social media platforms in particular are used as virtual catalogues by traffickers to identify new victims and develop grooming strategies, since a significant amount of information on the psychological and personal background of users. Social media is also used as a psychological weapon, with traffickers threatening to upload compromising pictures of their victims if the latter fail to comply with their demands.

Traffickers are now able to shape their recruitment strategy based on the online profiling of their victims. Two different forms of online recruitment strategies can be identified in this context: active and passive recruitment. Active recruitment resembles the ‘hook fishing’ technique and involves criminals posting false job advertisements on trusted job portals and social media marketplaces. 

The internet also affords human traffickers opportunities for a more passive recruitment, which is far less detectable by law enforcement. Passive recruitment resembles ‘net fishing’ in that criminal recruiters scout the internet and social media and reply to announcements posted by job seekers looking for jobs abroad. After initiating a brief conversation, recruiters will request a fee from the victims in return for securing the job abroad and helping with travel arrangements. It is not until victims arrive in the new country that they discover the scam.

Importantly, modern technology means that human traffickers no longer need to be in close proximity to their victims in order to control them. Traditionally, control over victims involved violence and physical restriction of movement. Today, control can be exerted via various forms of blackmail as well as via virtual forms of movement restriction and real-time monitoring.

Much in the same way, victims are no longer required to have a fixed physical location, where they may be more easily identified by police. The internet allows clients to locate victims online and have them delivered directly to them. As a result, victims are often moved, between cities but also countries, as exploiters are able to transfer their activity simply by modifying the details in online ads. In addition, short-term stays in different countries enhance the feelings of confusion among victims and their dependency on exploiters, as well as making it more challenging for law enforcement to detect and safeguard victims.

Technology also acts as a force multiplier for trafficking activities as it enables the commercialisation and exploitation of victims on a massive scale. Victims are repeatedly exploited as criminals replicate the same advertisement and livestreaming in multiple platforms in order to maximise outreach and profits. Technology has also served to lower the entry barrier for human traffickers: while historically, organised crime groups would have needed to exercise physical control and monopoly over specific city neighbourhoods and would generally consist of a large network of members, newcomers to THB can now efficiently manage an online business without the need for a physical criminal infrastructure and with a reduced workforce. As a result, a mastering of technology can make a criminal group more threatening yet less identifiable by law enforcement agencies.

Harnessing technology to prosecute criminals

Trafficking in human beings has transformed into a new business model, in which the online component is an essential part of criminals’ modus operandi. However, while on the one hand, technology offers criminals a virtual shield behind which they feel able to operate with near impunity; on the other, criminal moves online leave digital footprints and allow law enforcement to find leads.

While there is still much to be developed in this field, investigators are finding ways to trace criminals’ digital footprints for use in judicial proceedings. Investigators are able to discover information on identities, roles, structures, locations and criminal assets from the online activity of suspects.

Another valuable source of digital evidence is the financial transactions made by criminal members to upload online advertisements. A major challenge to law enforcement engaged in proactive THB investigations is the ability to spot exploitation signs among the magnitude of online advertisements. Reactive investigations are simpler, as they offer a starting point, such as the testimony of an identified victim and/or the account or webpage that was used for recruitment or exploitation purposes.

While law enforcement agencies are becoming more skilled in the use of digital technologies and forensics to combat THB crimes, the constant development of new technologies and change in business models used by traffickers keeps the race going between traffickers and law enforcement.

Law enforcement authorities dedicated to fighting human traffickers must be empowered to face these technological challenges. Empowerment needs to happen through an increase in capabilities, both in terms of technical knowledge and dedicated human resources, as well as through an improvement of the legislative tools that can support judicial proceedings and prosecution of traffickers.

The use of what social media and the internet can provide in terms of digital evidence is crucial, as victims of exploitation are particularly reticent due to the psychological threats and blackmail they are subjected to and to the public shaming that can derive from the disclosure of their exploitation. Thus, an update of the current legal system should be implemented to allow the use of digital footprints in investigations and prosecutions, in terms of easier access to available datasets and faster responses.

Investment in equipment and training (including in terms of data privacy, ethics and informed consent) is key for the development of investigative tools. Furthermore, there is a need to amend the existing legislative and policy framework to promote information exchange and cooperation between law enforcement and the private sector (internet service providers and social media companies). In particular, policies are needed to raise awareness among online service providers and coerce them into implementing measures to ensure their platforms are not being abused.

There is also a clear need to develop international investigations as the perpetrators, victims and online platforms involved in the same THB case are often based in different countries. This geographical displacement generates additional challenges with regard to jurisdiction, evidence collection, extradition, and mutual legal assistance. Similarly, training needs for investigators should be addressed at international level, in order to ensure standardised approaches and transnational interoperability.

Last but not least, the COVID-19 pandemic – in which more time is spent online by the public at large – is likely to result in further advantages for traffickers: current victims risk remaining confined to the digital environment, with fewer chances of been detected by law enforcement, while vulnerable individuals (including minors) are increasingly exposed to the risk of being contacted and groomed by recruiters.

The prolonged closure of sex establishments has increased the vulnerability of those victims who were providing services in window prostitution, sex clubs, nightclubs, massage parlours, etc. Their services remain on offer but have largely gone under the radar, putting victims in a much weaker position.

An economic recession in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis could also result in dangerous consequences in the THB landscape. Criminals could have access to a wider pool of individuals in economic distress, and potentially increasingly prone to accept any kind of job opportunity. At the same time, an increased demand for cheap labour may work as a pull factor, provoking a potential rise in trafficking within the EU.

Finally, as the development of digital communication technologies continues, this area will continue to be important for the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking. The next few years will be critical in terms of identifying and agreeing on the legal and technical frameworks that can be implemented to act effectively against trafficking in human beings in the digital age.