Human traffickers abusing online technology, warns UN crime prevention agency

Human traffickers who trick people with fake job offers and promises and then exploit them for profit, are taking advantage of online technologies for every step of their criminal activities.  

Research conducted by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows how victims are being targeted and recruited via social media and online dating platforms, where personal information and details of people’s locations are readily available. 

Sexual abuse and other forms of exploitation are taking place virtually and photos and videos sold further on different platforms to customers worldwide, resulting in even more money for the traffickers at no additional cost. 

This week, experts from around 100 countries met online and in Vienna, Austria, to discuss strategies to combat this phenomenon and make the best use of technology to prevent human trafficking and investigate cases of this crime.  

The discussion formed part of the annual intergovernmental Working Group of Trafficking in Persons and centres around an in-depth background paper  on this topic produced by UNODC’s Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section. 

“Traffickers are quick to adapt their business model to suit their needs and increase their profits, so of course they follow online trends,” explains Tiphanie Crittin, a UNODC Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer.

“Traffickers are currently using technology to profile, recruit, control and exploit their victims as well as using the Internet, especially the dark web, to hide illegal materials stemming from trafficking and their real identities from investigators.”  

The illicit proceeds from this highly profitable crime are also being laundered online through crypto currencies, which makes it easier for traffickers to receive, hide and move large amounts of money with less risk of being detected.   

Today, the Internet provides easy access to a much larger group of potential victims because traditional physical and geographical limitations no longer exist.  

Traffickers create fake websites or post advertisements on legitimate employment portals and social networking websites. 

Some of these sites feature the option of a live chat. This gives the trafficker immediate contact and the opportunity to obtain personal information, such as passport details, enhancing their power over the targeted victims.   

Victims can be repeatedly exploited through live streaming on multiple websites, and there is no limit on the number of times videos of their abuse may be viewed and by how many people.  

The global nature of human trafficking and the abuse of technology makes it even more difficult for law enforcement authorities to tackle this crime, explains Ms. Crittin.  

“When a crime is planned in one country, with victims in another country, and a customer in a third one, law enforcement authorities face practical challenges such as finding and securing evidence, as any investigation requires cooperation across borders and a certain level of digital expertise,” she says. 

Traffickers use technology to control their victims remotely, sometimes without having to ever met them in person. 

Location-tracking applications and use of global positioning systems in mobile phones can be used to know the victim’s location, while cameras in smartphones used during video calls enable traffickers to see their victims and their surroundings.  

Traffickers also maintain control over their victims by threatening to release intimate photos or videos of them to families and friends if they do not comply with their demands.  

One of the panellists at the Working Group, Alexandra Gelber, the Deputy Chief for Policy and Legislation at the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the United States’ Department of Justice, highlighted the links between trafficking and online technology in her country. 

“Data shows that in the United States approximately 40% of sex trafficking victims are recruited online, making the Internet the most common place where victim recruitment takes place,” she says.    

“For over a decade, online advertising has been the main tactic used by traffickers to solicit buyers for commercial sex. In 2020, over 80% of the [Justice Department’s] sex trafficking prosecutions involved online advertising.”  

Ms. Gelber adds that technology is also being used to commit “virtual child sex trafficking” which takes place when an offender in the United States sends a digital payment to a trafficker in another country.  

“The trafficker will then sexually abuse a child in front of a web camera, while the offender in the United States watches a livestream of the abuse.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided further opportunities for traffickers due to the increased use of the Internet, in particular social networks and online video gaming sites.

“Containment measures to control the spread of the virus meant that people spent much more time online, especially children since schools were closed. We have seen an increase in child sexual exploitation materials created and shared online during the pandemic,” says  Tiphanie Crittin.  

Despite the increasing criminal uses of technology by traffickers, technology can also be used to identify victims and support police investigations and prosecutions.

“However, when investigators enter the digital world of citizens, they have access to personal information. It is crucial to have strict frameworks around such access and use of  data to make sure that the right to privacy and human rights are respected,” says UNODC’s Ms. Crittin.  

The UNODC background paper shares numerous examples of existing or promising partnerships and tools which countries are using or developing. These include digital forensics, data scanning tools, smartphone apps and successful collaborations with technology, social media and Internet companies.

UNODC has also co-organized “DataJams” with computing giant IBM and the Colombian non-governmental organization Pasos Libres, in which students compete online to develop technology-based solutions to identify and protect victims of trafficking and support prosecutions.