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The role of technology in human trafficking and sexual exploitation

Simple, portable and leaving little trace, technology is increasingly being used for commercial sexual exploitation


By Mandy Johnson, P1 Contributor

Human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar worldwide criminal industry. Trafficking involves denying a person their freedom and benefitting from their exploitation. Traffickers use force, fraud or coercion when exploiting their victims.

The many forms of trafficking fall into two primary categories:

Traffickers are able to evade law enforcement detection using features and apps on a smartphone. (Photo/Pixabay)
Traffickers are able to evade law enforcement detection using features and apps on a smartphone. (Photo/Pixabay)
  • Forced labor (e.g., restaurant work, fruit stand sales and farm labor)
  • Sexual exploitation (e.g., commercial sexual activities such as prostitution, pornography and stripping)

Sexually exploited victims are the largest percentage across the different forms of trafficking. The evolution of technology has created a non-traditional arena for traffickers to sexually exploit victims.

Around the world and in our present culture, technology has many purposes: communication, tracking, payment services and collaboration. While those purposes are not criminal in and of themselves, a trafficker’s use of technology is typically criminal in nature and exploitive.

Traffickers use devices like notepads, laptops and smartphones because they are portable, small and simple to use; they have multiple functions; and they can assist in individuals evading law enforcement detection.

Technology facilitates communication, payment

Communication is critical in commercial sexual exploitation (CSE). A trafficker needs to be able to communicate with potential buyers.

Using smartphone texting features, texting applications, private or instant messaging apps, or Voice Over IP (VoIP), traffickers are able to communicate with an interested buyer to set up a “date,” discuss payment (or donation) and establish a meeting point.

Tracking a victim’s movement means that she (there are male CSE victims, but typically a CSE victim is female) is not necessarily free to get help, contact law enforcement or leave her trafficker. The trafficker is able to display dominance and control by keeping tabs on the victim and ensuring she is where she is expected to be.

Many smartphones have GPS capabilities and location apps whereby a trafficker is able to verify the location of a victim’s phone. Theoretically, if the phone is somewhere, the victim should also be there. Essentially, her movements are monitored in real time.

While payments have historically been cash, according to a trafficking survivor, traffickers prefer electronic payment. Cash transactions can threaten business. If a victim has large amounts of cash in her possession, a buyer may assault her and rob her. Carrying credit cards – such as a Vanilla card, Greendot card and other reloadable prepaid cards – is also not as suspicious as carrying several hundred dollars in small bills.

Electronic funds such as bitcoin are utilized as a quick, untraceable method of payment. Additionally, if a buyer pays in advance via bitcoin, a reloadable prepaid card or through a money transfer app, the trafficker minimizes the risk of loss and can easily move the money around.

These alternate forms of payment allow monies to be sent to someone anywhere in the world, be posted on the books of an incarcerated trafficker or assist in evading law enforcement suspicion.

Collaboration and coordination among traffickers is more feasible when they utilize different forms of technology. Modern technology enables traffickers to exploit their victims to a larger audience.

The darkweb allows for clandestine service or person sales. Dating, escort or sales websites (such as Backpage and Craigslist) are easily manipulated to facilitate commercial sexual encounters.

Social media sites and apps are often used for recruiting purposes and communication with potential victims. 

Other apps are used for communication with buyers, other sellers and victims; collaboration of trafficking efforts; payment arrangements; victim tracking; evasion of law enforcement detection; and phone locking to minimize evidence collection.

Portable nature of technology aids traffickers

According to law enforcement, traffickers use technology because it is simple. A trafficker with minimal to no formal education can easily access and use many features of a smartphone such as GPS tracking or apps that lock a phone remotely.

Smartphones, notepads and laptops serve many purposes. One device small enough to fit in a pocket or small purse can facilitate almost every aspect of CSE, such as communication, tracking, payment acquisition or transfer, and exploitation collaboration. While traffickers may have a desktop computer, laptops, notepads and smartphones are far more efficient and portable.

Portability means transactions can be initiated anywhere at any time with anyone. The victim does not need to stand on a street corner to hustle a ”date” because connecting with a potential buyer, coordinating the time and location, and establishing the terms of the date (donation amount, services, etc.) are easy to finalize on their phone prior to meeting. There is no need to have a landline to make phone calls because the victim or trafficker is able to make phone calls using apps or VoIP.

Traffickers are able to evade law enforcement detection using features and apps on a smartphone. For example, a cell phone service contract is not necessary if there is access to a Wi-Fi connection. Avoiding a cell phone service contract makes it more difficult for law enforcement to track the user, their phone calls and identity.

Conclusion

Recognizing the ways a trafficker exploits technology can enhance investigative efforts, assist in detecting criminal activity and potentially create grounds for prosecution. Maintaining technological awareness is critical. Technology is continually changing and remaining cognizant of emerging trends can make a difference in the life of a victim.


About the author
Mandy Johnson has been in law enforcement for over nine years as a crime and intelligence analyst. She has a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and criminal justice, a Master's degree in criminal justice and a certificate in crime and intelligence analysis. She has worked at police departments, sheriff's offices, the California Department of Justice and the California State Threat Assessment Center (a federally recognized fusion center). She has also worked as a criminal justice college instructor. Her areas of expertise are prison and criminal street gangs and human trafficking.

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