The development of technology has had an important influence on the crime of trafficking in persons, presenting both challenges and opportunities.
While technology is frequently misused to facilitate trafficking in persons, its positive use can also help practitioners combat trafficking, such as by aiding investigations, enhancing prosecutions, raising awareness, providing services to victims, and shedding new light on the make-up and operation of trafficking networks. Taking this into account, future success in eradicating human trafficking, in its many forms, will depend on how countries and societies are prepared for, and equipped to, harness technology in their responses.
Research and direct evidence show that technology is being misused by human traffickers during all the stages of the crime, including recruitment, control, and exploitation of victims. Some of the main reasons that technology is harnessed by traffickers include:
The use of technology by perpetrators is not only an issue for anti-trafficking response systems, but also can be particularly detrimental to actual or potential victims of human trafficking.
Traditionally, traffickers exploit victims’ vulnerabilities such as poverty, desire to escape domestic violence, lack of educational opportunities and family support, homelessness, mental or physical disabilities, migration status and addiction to drugs. Children who come from families in which neglect or abuse is commonplace may be additionally vulnerable.
However, technology, and the Internet in particular, provides new opportunities for potential victims to be targeted, regardless of socio-economic status, as traffickers are also able to exploit additional vulnerabilities such as lack of understanding of risks on-line or trust in virtual interactions. Moreover, technology can be misused to further impact victims while in a trafficking situation: threats to share intimate images is a common tactic used to further exploit victims.
Exploitation of victims through the use of technology also creates risks for re-victimization and challenges for the successful rehabilitation of victims. When victims are forced to produce pornographic content or are exploited in erotic online video-chats, this material can be saved and circulated
online an infinite number of times.
As long as the material exists, the risks of trauma and stigmatization persist and full recovery of victims is jeopardized. These risks are often exacerbated in societies with strict patriarchal norms that control female sexuality and place strong emphasis on chastity. Due to gender discriminatory attitudes, women and girls in certain contexts can be especially ostracized and stigmatized by their families and community for having been sexually exposed even in the context of exploitation. Men and boys likewise also face particular challenges linked to their being victims of sexual exploitation, including those associated with gendered views about masculinity. Likewise, the existence of the content can have long-term implications for victims, including hindering career and social integration opportunities.
Despite its frequent misuse, technology can be an important asset for those involved in combating
trafficking in persons. Government authorities, non-governmental organizations, international organizations and private sector companies have at
their disposal a wide range of technological tools that can be used to support their anti-trafficking efforts.
A number of initiatives have already been launched around the world on the use of technology to fight human trafficking. For example, Tech Against Trafficking, a coalition of technology companies working to combat human trafficking and supported by different stakeholders including international organizations such the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the International Organization for Migration, has mapped more than 260 technology tools that support anti-trafficking work.11 Nearly half focus on trafficking for forced labour, 18% on trafficking for sexual exploitation, and the rest on other forms of trafficking. The tools range from simple mobile apps informing vulnerable communities and individuals of the risks of labour exploitation, to more advanced technologies—such as satellite imagery and geospatial mapping —used to identify and locate remote and high risk sectors that may be engaged in illegal activity and require additional investigation.
In addition to identifying the potential positive and negative uses of technology in the context of trafficking, policy makers and the technology sector must consider how to support practitioners in addressing the intersection of technology and trafficking. In Resolution 27/2 of 2018 of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, UN Member States mandated UNODC to “Continue providing, within its existing mandate, technical assistance and training to Member States, in particular developing countries, at their request, to improve and build capacities to prevent and combat trafficking in persons that is facilitated by the criminal misuse of information and communications technologies, and to utilize technology
to prevent and address such trafficking”. Likewise, the 2013 Addendum to the OSCE Action Plan on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings recommends to OSCE participating States “Promoting regular training courses, as appropriate, in accordance with national legal systems, for officials… on all recent trends and aspects of THB, including… the use of the Internet and other information and communication technologies
(ICTs) for committing THB related crimes, as well as training on the use of financial investigation techniques linked with THB related cases, and exchange of best practices”.
Therefore, anti-trafficking strategic plans should incorporate measures on capacity building related to the intersection of
technology and trafficking. For example, law enforcement practitioners must be trained on how to capture evidence of technology’s misuse to support investigations and prosecutions; NGOs must be trained on the use of tools to identify or assist victims; technology developers should be trained on unintended uses of technology in the context of trafficking; and so forth. In short, careful thought must be given to the development, use, maintenance, monitoring and evaluation of technology used by practitioners to combat trafficking.
In promoting the responsible development and use of technology, cross-sectoral partnerships are key. For example, the WeProtect Global Alliance is a group of over 88 countries, 20 leading ICT companies, 25 civil society organisations, and international organisations such as UNICEF (an ICAT member) that has been a leading initiative since 2014 in ending online child sexual exploitation.
The increased use of technology to counter trafficking has highlighted considerations around data privacy, ethics, transparency, accountability and informed consent – the latter becoming increasingly relevant with the use of AI by law enforcement. Most technology applications for counter-trafficking in persons require some form of collecting, storing, sharing and analysing data—each of which has its own inherent risks and requires established protocols and protections.
In order to minimize the misuse of technology to facilitate trafficking in persons, and to maximize the value of technology-based solutions to this crime, while ensuring ethical considerations are fully addressed,
Significantly expand data collection and research on the scope, scale, and nature of the misuse of technology to facilitate human trafficking, particularly on the Internet.
Build expertise and capacity among practitioners across sectors to allow for maximum use of technology to combat trafficking.
Support law enforcement in establishing a presence in the online world, conducting pro-active operations, seizing appropriate evidence, and using available counter-trafficking technology tools.
Increase support for technology-based solutions to identifying trafficking victims and cases.
Support policies and technology-based solutions that address the global scope of human trafficking, such as scalable, online prevention programming or data aggregation tools that facilitate large-scale information analysis in support of human trafficking investigations.
Ensure that new initiatives in the anti-trafficking field do not duplicate existing efforts related to technology.
Explore policy and operational solutions to address the misuse of technology platforms, including websites that can be used to facilitate human trafficking.
Incorporate a gender-sensitive perspective when addressing the trafficking and technology nexus, including by addressing the continuum of violence against women and girls that occurs online, such as the use of sexual blackmail, harassment and the advertisements of sham marriages, as means of gender-based coercion and control that perpetuate trafficking in women and girls. The benefits provided by the developed technology should also be gender-sensitive, including by facilitating easy reporting and ensuring that victims have quick and effective recourse to assistance if they are targeted by repetitive abusive behaviour on-line which places them at a greater risk of trafficking and exploitation
ICAT is a UN General Assembly-mandated policy forum which brings together 27 organizations across the UN system and other relevant international and regional organizations to improve coordination and facilitate holistic and comprehensive responses to trafficking in persons
UN General Assembly. Trafficking in women and girls. Report of the Secretary-General, 2018, No A/73/263, p. 8.
EUROPOL. Situation Report: Trafficking in human beings in the EU, p. 12.
Europol estimates in its 2015 Report on the Internet Organized Crime Threat Assessment that 40% of criminal-to-criminal payments take place with cryptocurrencies.
EUROPOL. Situation Report: Trafficking in human beings in the EU, p. 12.
United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking, p. 4 (citing testimony of Yiota G. Souras, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, before Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, at 2 (Nov. 19, 2015).
UNODC. Global Report on Trafficking in Persons (2018).
EUROPOL. Criminal Networks Involved in the Trafficking and Exploitation of Underage Victims in the EU, p. 7
ECPAT International, Emerging Global Threats Related to the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children.
A list of technology tools developed to support efforts to combat human trafficking can be found here: https://www.bsr.org/files/BSR_list_of_technology_tools_identified_by_tech_against_trafficking