How technology can help law enforcement fight human trafficking
Investigators are leveraging key advances to identify traffickers and help victims
Human trafficking is one of the most heinous crimes in the world. It strips victims of their dignity, freedom and basic human rights. The DOJ defines human trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or solicitation of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act or for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.
Human trafficking is particularly hard to stop because of the clandestine nature of the crime. In most cities, victims are forced underground and threatened with death if they voluntarily talk with the police. Victims rescued by police are often scared. They often feel trapped and unable to escape the invisible chains that bind them. They want out but are too afraid to say anything.
Police and prosecutors understand these investigative hurdles, so they have started turning to advanced technology to help find, identify and prosecute traffickers. Below are some common tools investigators use to fight human trafficking.
Investigators can use facial recognition software to identify known traffickers and victims. This tool is useful in human trafficking cases because most traffickers and victims live rogue, nomadic lifestyles, often moving from place to place under the radar of law enforcement. A trafficker and their victim may only spend a few weeks in one state before moving to the next.
Often the trafficker’s victims are reported missing from other states. So there is a big possibility the trafficker belongs to one state, the victim to another, and they are working in a third state. To make matters worse, traffickers go to great lengths to hide what they are doing, so they use fake names, IDs and even vehicle registrations. And many victims, especially when they are underage, rarely have state-issued identification, making the identification process significantly harder.
Facial recognition software uses algorithms to analyze facial features and compare them to databases of known faces. Investigators can use facial recognition software to compare images of potential victims with databases of missing persons and can compare traffickers’ images with previous booking photographs.
Focusing on OSINT, particularly big data, can make your investigation much more efficient if you know what to look for. Big data analytics is the process of analyzing large and complex data sets to uncover patterns and correlations. Looking through huge data sets is particularly hard without the use of technology. In February Cobwebs Technologies, a provider of AI-powered open-source intelligence (OSINT), issued a press release announcing its partnership with the faith-based relief organization All Things Possible (ATP) to counter human trafficking using big data.
“Traffickers’ ability to recruit and groom victims online is at an all-time high,” Udi Levy, CEO and co-founder of Cobwebs Technologies said. “Social networking and dating sites are riddled with potential predators. Integrating a variety of investigative tools and methods into an investigative ‘toolbox’ is critical to uncovering hidden connections and developing relevant leads. Since [the] dark and deep web, along with other online sources, can be challenging to access, investigators need automated OSINT tools that can work in concert with other tools and data. That is why we are partnering with ATP on this important endeavor.”
Understanding how big data works, especially OSINT data, will help police agencies find traffickers and victims quicker than manual processes alone. In human trafficking cases, time is not on the investigator’s side.
Mobile and digital forensics
Mobile and digital forensics is the process of collecting and analyzing data from digital devices. Since the average number of connected devices per household is 10, the data per trafficker and victim can be in the terabytes. Manual sorting through cell phones and device data is nearly impossible, which is why many agencies turn to data-extraction software.
In human trafficking cases, investigators can use mobile and digital forensic tools to analyze text messages, emails and social media posts between traffickers and victims. This will help build those strong links required for prosecution.
In conclusion, human trafficking remains challenging for investigators and prosecutions, but technology is proving an asset in finding traffickers and identifying victims. From OSINT analytics to facial recognition software and mobile and digital forensics, law enforcement agencies around the world use technology to help with investigations.
However, the fight against human trafficking is more than just using the best technology and completing the best investigations. The fight requires public awareness, policy reform and interagency cooperation. By working together and harnessing the power of technology, we can continue to make progress in combating human trafficking and protecting the basic human rights of all people.