For years, technology has pervaded trafficking spaces as a dangerous tool that traffickers use for surreptitious recruitment, advertisement and exploitation of victims. With reports illustrating the online inventories traffickers utilize to exhibit their victims as commodities that others can purchase and exploit, it is evident that the role of technology in human trafficking is one that provides perpetrators with an unsettling advantage. There is a strong link between poverty and human trafficking as traffickers often target the most vulnerable, marginalized and impoverished people.
How Traffickers Utilize Technology
The threatening reach of perpetrators even extends to children. According to the Shiva Foundation, online demand depicts that there could be as many as 750,000 users across the globe seeking to sexually exploit children online. Social media also plays a role in enabling traffickers to target, contact and lure potential victims into exploitative deals, as indicated by the 2018 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.
In addition, GPS software in phones, alongside video surveillance and live streaming technology, assists perpetrators in keeping constant control of their victims’ movements. Furthermore, post-captivity, victims who have permanent images and reminders of their sexual exploitation etched in the online space may struggle with recovery.
The Role of Technology in Human Trafficking Amid COVID-19
The virtual recruitment of trafficking victims has become significantly more prevalent with time, as outlined by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. Particularly, following the global outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, people around the world began relying on technology and social media to interact with others amid social distancing protocols. During this time, traffickers used online social media platforms to lure victims. This danger rendered offenders more difficult to trace to a concrete physical location.
In Save the Children’s 11th edition of the report “Little Invisible Slaves,” which documents child trafficking, the organization highlighted that, in 2020, Western and Southern Europe noted the highest number of confirmed child trafficking cases globally—a total of 4,168 child victims. Furthermore, numerous cases involved the sexual exploitation of young women, with 27.5% of incidents hailing from Tunisia. The report also marked a rise in the cases of trafficked women with children, primarily from Nigeria, which rose to 12% in 2020 in contrast to 6% in 2016.
In 2020, the National Human Trafficking Hotline in the U.S. saw a “125% increase in reports of recruitment into trafficking through Facebook and a 95% increase in reports of recruitment on Instagram compared to the previous year.” Considering this link between technology and human trafficking, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reports the “internet as the top recruitment location for all forms of trafficking.”
The Positive Role of Technology in Human Trafficking
While social media can be a dangerous space for traffickers to gather intel on and recruit victims, it can also be beneficial in raising awareness, informing and educating the general populace on the issue. Technology plays a crucial role in undercutting human trafficking through techniques such as data aggregation, which refers to the synthesis of relevant online trends. For instance, in 2022, Thomas Reuters collaborated with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to examine whether an online demand exists for the exploitation of particularly vulnerable groups, such as Ukrainian women facing the impacts of the conflict in Ukraine.
The results of their investigation pointed to a spike of up to 300% in online interest in the sexualization of Ukrainian women following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. As Ukrainian women face high risks of becoming victims of trafficking n their attempts to escape wartime strife, this illustrates the necessity of technology and data aggregation in identifying online trends and in victim identification.
Moreover, through the use of data analysis and aggregation to pinpoint vulnerable groups, technology can provide a platform for the launching of campaigns that promote safety and spread awareness. Notably, in light of the increased risk of trafficking for Ukrainian women, the OSCE and Thomson Reuters launched the “Be Safe” campaign in 2022. The online awareness campaign targeting Ukrainians critically outlines warning signs of trafficking, minimizes the risk and guides potential victims to local sources of assistance.
Using Technology in Anti-Human Trafficking Efforts
Love Justice International, funded by the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking (UNVTF), uses technology to intercept trafficking situations. “By combining its own data on previous potential victims with road network graphs from OpenStreetMap (a collaborative open-source geographic database), [Love Justice International] has created route heatmaps showing the road segments that are likely to be most heavily used for human trafficking in certain areas,” the UNODC website explains.
Love Justice International establishes transit monitoring stations to identify potential victims of trafficking and intervene before the trafficking occurs. In 2006, the organization began its human trafficking interception work at the border of India and Nepal and in Bangladesh. Since then, it has established transit monitoring sites in several countries with high human trafficking rates. In 2022, monitoring extended to Romania, Moldova, Ethiopia, Ecuador, Burundi, Mexico and Indonesia. Love Justice International now has 78 transit monitoring sites and has intercepted more than 46,000 potential victims of trafficking. The organization’s trafficking work has led to more than 1,300 arrests.
In July 2023 in a video message published on the UNODC website, Ghada Waly, executive director of the UNODC, says, “To protect people, we need to protect digital spaces from criminal abuse.” Exploring the role of technology in human trafficking shows that technology does provide certain advantages to traffickers. However, as seen in the activities of Love Justice International and other organizations, technology also plays a significant role in efforts to combat human trafficking.
– Katrina Girod