Exploitation at Your Fingertips: Human Trafficking and Technology

Jun 7, 2019

Like most businesses these days, the illicit enterprise of human trafficking uses technology to recruit workers, secure customers, advertise services and facilitate payments. According to research conducted by Thorn, an organization dedicated to combatting child sex trafficking, prior to 2004, 38% of trafficking victims were advertised online; that number increased to 75% during the following ten years. Although trafficking depends on the exploitation of human bodies, many victims fall prey to traffickers when they establish their disembodied identities on the world wide web.

Human traffickers tend to target people who have endured hardship, marginalization and abuse. Children are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked for sex. Among Thorn’s research respondents, the average age of entry into trafficking was fourteen. The organization points out that youth who feel disconnected and isolated may use social media platforms and websites to initiate relationships; these endeavors are the young people’s attempts to fulfill their emotional needs. Unfortunately, their vulnerabilities are easily identified by traffickers who troll the internet for victims. Online recruiters present empathetic and affable facades to their potential victims, representing their love or counsel as the ticket out of an unhappy life. Once they have established their victims’ devotion or dependency, traffickers trap them in a cycle of sexual and/or labor servitude.

Traffickers utilize more than websites to keep their businesses profitable. According to policeone.com, the portability of smartphones and tablets allows traffickers – who are often on the move, shuttling their victims from place to place – to engage with potential victims and buyers, anytime, anywhere. Privacy features, such as message encryption, allow recruiters to remain virtually invisible to law enforcement. Further, traffickers from a range of educational and skill levels can utilize the straightforward and user-friendly features of technology. For example, traffickers may use GPS systems to track their victims’ movements, thereby preventing these individuals from escaping or seeking help. The law enforcement website also points out that many traffickers rely on electronic payments such as bitcoin, as these non-cash transactions minimize their risk of being robbed, allow them to send and receive money from anywhere in the world, and make their criminal activity more difficult for investigators to detect. Finally, technology facilitates communication between traffickers, allowing them to coordinate their illegal activities across the globe.

In 2018, two bills aimed at combatting online sex trafficking were signed into laws: the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA). These laws hold website publishers accountable for content that facilitates the selling of sex and have helped shut down sites such as Backpage, an online hub notorious for its ads promoting the sex trafficking of minors. While traffickers and their supporters use technology to promote and expand their criminal endeavors, anti-trafficking advocates are developing technologies that expose and deter human trafficking. Thorn, for example, offers their Spotlight tool to law enforcement officials so that investigators may efficiently compile sex trafficking data gleaned from online advertisements.

Human traffickers rarely act in isolation. Most of these perpetrators operate within a web of individuals and businesses that support the selling and enslavement of human lives. Technologies –  while often presented as a neutral tool, subject to the whims of its users –  are created by people and distributed by businesses with vested interests. And some of these individuals and businesses are interested in the profits they earn from promoting human trafficking. Our attorneys use the civil justice system to expose these perpetrators and hold them accountable for their unconscionable acts. If you or someone you know is a survivor of trafficking, please contact us today for a free consultation.

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