The Role of Tech in Human Trafficking

The Role of Tech in Human Trafficking

by Her Future Research Fellow Richa Gupta

That technology has made our lives infinitely easier and miles more convenient is an indisputable fact; but with the good must come the bad—with the benefits must come the darkness. Technology is increasingly being employed and abused for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation, and is leaving behind a trail of trauma—with a seemingly invisible digital footprint.  

One of the prime indicators of human trafficking and sexual exploitation is a lack of agency: essentially, the victim of such a dynamic doesn’t have the independence to engage in actions or conversations that are not approved by the trafficker. The presence of tracking and GPS capabilities on smartphones has exacerbated this issue—since traffickers can now keep perpetual tabs on the location of a victim’s phone (since they’ll presumably be within a certain radius of their phone). Technology has also streamlined the payment process—since carrying or travelling with sacks of cash can arouse suspicion, and leaves the carrier susceptible to attacks and muggings. Hence, traffickers often resort to using bitcoin as a method of payment—since it’s a quick, electronic form of payment, and is essentially untraceable.  Hence, since technology allows money to move around with enormous speed and ease, it has become a powerful weapon for traffickers to exploit at their leisure. Other payment methods include credit cards, such as Vanilla cards and reloadable prepaid cards.  

That said, the role of technology has taken yet more sinister turns—in the form of the darkweb. According to PoliceOne, this side of the internet enables “clandestine services and person sales”—whereas the well-known facets of the internet, such as social media and mobile apps, are used to identify, groom, and communicate with potential victims (many of whom are extremely vulnerable, and lack a robust support system). As extrapolated by a group of researchers at Microsoft Research, technology has transformed a number of dimensions that pertain to human trafficking, such as recruitment and abduction of victims (which was previously highlighted), retention of victims, money exchange and money laundering, underground partnerships and crime syndicates, and rehabilitation for survivors, among a host of others.

 For instance, in the case of organized crime: since syndicates are borne from highly intertwined networks, the internet provides an accessible platform through which to exchange information and locations; moreover, there have even been cases of horrific videos being streamed, which people can pay to watch. A few years ago, Al Jazeera reported on a nauseating phenomenon that was taking form in India (particularly in the Northern states): “rape videos for sale”—in which footage of women being raped and brutalized could be “purchased” for under $3. And to make the scenario even more sickening, the identities of the women were often not protected—their faces and voices could be clearly seen and heard, which would result in further mockery, isolation, and ostracism from their existing social circles. The videos were typically used as tool for blackmail—so that the victims wouldn’t report the assault to the police or courts. In the words of Mangla Verma, a Delhi High Court lawyer (in response to these videos), “This is how patriarchy works”. The terror, humiliation, and trauma the victims face later must be inconceivable—I shudder to think of it.

Technology can also interrupt the rehabilitation and recovery process for victims who do eventually escape and seek help: since social media channels (as well as other platforms) can directly expose survivors to further threats, abuse, and cyber-bullying. And even if survivors deactivate or delete any accounts they have, technology can still be used to gain access to people in the victims’ proximity (such as family members, friends, partners, and therapists).

There is no doubt that technology has greatly altered the ecosystem of human trafficking—for better and for worse. Indeed, in the words of Jason Silva, a Venezuelan-American television personality and philosopher, “Technology is, of course, a double edged sword. Fire can cook our food but also burn us”. When wielded carefully and sensitively, technology can prove to be a blessing to trafficking victims, survivors, and social activists across the globe.

According to a group of researchers at Microsoft Research, visibility is critical to identifying both victims and perpetrators; and hence, it is up to technology companies to help streamline the identification process, and to take advantage of digital traces and electronic evidence when developing such identification procedures and algorithms. The value of electronic traces also extends into the prosecution of perpetrators: since the presence of data traces, online conversations, and search histories can be used as evidence when prosecuting a trafficker. Furthermore, as said by Kristen Abrams (the Senior Director of combatting human trafficking at the McCain Institute), technology can be further used to track patterns on the dark web, and to identify weak spots in the “supply chains to forced labor”.  

Artificial intelligence (AI) is another exciting field in technology that can be leveraged to protect survivors and potential victims of human trafficking: by using speech tools and pattern recognition to siphon through the vast amounts of data that travel through the internet. Moreover, there are a number of apps and software packages that have been released to fight the rising rates of human trafficking: Spotlight, a tool developed by Thorn, takes the enormous amounts of online data on the commercial sex market—and converts it into an “asset for law enforcement”, with the noble objective of increasing the efficiency of trafficking investigations, and connecting more victims with help resources (such as psychological and financial services). In addition, PhotoDNA, a software package coded by Microsoft (in collaboration with Dartmouth College), helps locate and remove online photos of child exploitation. As of now, it cannot be used to pinpoint the identity of the person in the image—but can still play a powerful role in curbing the spread of child pornography.

Technology can also be crucial to raising awareness about human trafficking—for instance, in the form of Public Service Announcements (or PSAs). Such announcements can be instrumental in preventing vulnerable children from falling victim to traffickers and perpetrators. This also extends to general education and awareness initiatives—which includes television and online advertisements, movies and shows, and other smartphone applications. I’ve personally noticed that some of the most powerful campaigns for social issues were borne from a single television advertisement—which then blossomed into national (and even international) successes. For example, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) operates a toll-free hotline that provides assistance and support to victims of human trafficking—24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in over 200 languages! According to its website, a whopping 40,200 cases have been reported since December 2017, and they’ve received 170,430 calls since 2007!

 In the words of David Wong, an American writer, “New technology is not good or evil in and of itself. It's all about how people choose to use it”. Technology can be dangerous, but it can also be life-saving. With the rise of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and pattern recognition (among a wealth of others), it’s crucial that these techniques are wielded by ethical, upstanding people. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case; and hence, we should do all we can to support the nonprofits and companies that are harnessing technology to do social good. 

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