Human Trafficking and the Digital World

18 July 2023

The digital world has long been a haven for criminals; the dark web has operated as an underground marketplace for all manner of illicit trade, whereas online services offer a degree of anonymity - and the ability to operate at scale and at distance - that in-person services don’t allow.

Human trafficking is no exception to this rule: the rise and expansion of the digital world has enabled traffickers to expand and streamline operations - and allowed more people to enter the trade. With estimates of the global number of victims of human trafficking and modern slavery now hovering around 50 million, this is a more pressing issue than ever.

Virtual currencies are increasingly used to facilitate trafficking, with many online commercial sex marketplaces accepting - and, indeed, offering discounts to customers who use - them and Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, which have diversified into human trafficking, using cryptocurrencies to launder the proceeds of their criminal activity, as observed by the US Department of State. Cryptocurrencies’ relative anonymity and many exchanges’ limited or lacking implementation of Know Your Customer (KYC) measures has added to the challenges law enforcement face when trying to prevent and discover illegal activity.

A UN Commission of Inquiry as far back as 2016 also found that social media had allowed armed groups and fighters, including Boko Haram and Islamic State, to set up online slave auctions and circulate photos and details of captured women.

More recently, during a UK House of Commons debate on the Online Safety Bill, Dover MP Natalie Elphicke highlighted the "massive increase in the number of Albanians crossing the Channel in small boats" and said it had become "easy to find criminal gangs posting in Albanian on TikTok with videos showing cheery migrants with thumbs up on dinghies scooting across the Channel and motoring into Britain with ease". She even suggested that criminalising such online promotions for illegal and misleading smuggling efforts would stymie the business model of trafficking groups and ultimately help to save lives.

These platforms aren’t just supporting trafficking activities abroad, however - they’re being used to just as great of an extent in the UK, Europe and US. Law enforcement and government officials have observed an increase in social media platforms, like Snapchat and WhatsApp, being used to lure and sexually exploit children and young adults since 2020 - a trend which appears to have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which shifted communication even more firmly online.

Indeed, in 2023, police were able to access Snapchat images during an investigation into county lines which showed a 14-year-old schoolboy being exploited, and led them to an organised crime group that used the teenager as a runner to supply Class A drugs in Wigan and Rhyl in 2021. The Snapchat messages showed that the victim owed the crime gang money and pressure was then put on him to repay it, and formed a vital piece of evidence in the prosecution.

Fig 1: A Themis Search investigation showing members of the organised crime gang that used Snapchat as a means of exploiting a teenage victim into transporting drugs across county lines.

Earlier in 2023, a new lawsuit was launched accusing Mark Zuckerberg and other Meta Platforms Inc executives and directors of failing to do enough to stop sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation on Facebook and Instagram. Notably, the lawsuit was filed by several pension and investment funds that own Meta stock, stating that its leadership and board had failed to protect the company's and shareholders' interests by turning a blind eye to "systemic evidence" of criminal activity, and that given the board's failure to explain how it attempts to tackle the well-known use of its platforms for trafficking, "the only logical inference is that the board has consciously decided to permit Meta's platforms to promote and facilitate sex/human trafficking".

The company has known about Facebook being used for human trafficking activities, including to advertise for victims for the purpose of domestic servitude and forced labour, since at least 2018: company documents describe how women trafficked through its platform are subjected to physical and sexual abuse, deprived of food and pay, and have their travel documents confiscated. Indeed, in 2019, Apple even threatened to pull Facebook and Instagram’s access to the App Store over concerns linked to human trafficking - concerns which Meta managed to assuage at the time, but which weren’t adequately addressed. In 2021, an internal Facebook report noted that “gaps still exist in our detection of on-platform entities engaged in domestic servitude”, detailing how its platforms are used to recruit, buy and sell “domestic servants.”

TikTok is also the subject of trafficking-related lawsuits in the US. In 2022, the Texas Attorney General issued two Civil Investigative Demands to the company, launching an investigation into TikTok’s potential facilitation of human trafficking and child privacy violations; the platform is used both to lure and entrap as well as to advertise victims for sale.

Airbnbs are increasingly used to facilitate trafficking activities, too - both as places for sex trafficking, where clients can visit in a more private and anonymous capacity than at a hotel, and where there’s a lower risk of information being fed to law enforcement by staff or other guests who notice unusual behaviour. New accommodation can be found and changed at late notice if traffickers suspect a risk of detection, and to keep victims on their journeys to being transported elsewhere.

Law enforcement authorities in Canada have previously noted that Airbnb is cooperative with them on the issue of human trafficking - and indeed, the company is looking at ways to help identify patterns and flag reservations with the firm that runs the US National Human Trafficking Hotline. However, the company states that without greater due diligence on the part of individuals renting their private residences, it’s a hard issue to resolve. Individuals renting their property on Airbnb can integrate due diligence into their process, such as by asking for IDs and other documentation on all guests who will be staying at their property.

In fact, normalising due diligence in everyday life can help identify and prevent human trafficking and subsequent financial crimes. At Themis, we aim to help make due diligence easy and a habitual part of everyday working and home life. Whether it's checking to see if the product you want to buy has a history of forced labour, the charity you may donate to has a reputation for misleading marketing or the salesman you’re liaising with has a history of fraud, it is important to understand how you as an individual can help support better industry practices and keep yourself safe from exposure to illicit behaviour.

The use of social media platforms doesn’t end when victims are entrapped or sold; victims are also used, in turn, to scam more people, especially via online or cyber scams. In Cambodia, for example, vast, organised online scamming operations are run like businesses, with trafficking victims lured there from other countries on the promise of legitimate employment and subsequently forced to perpetrate cyber scams targeting individuals in the West and Australia, which earn income for their traffickers. Such scams can involve building relationships with individuals over Facebook, WhatsApp and TikTok.

However, the digital world can also play a part in disrupting human trafficking activities. For example, a number of TikTok videos have been uploaded to the platform purporting to show potential traffickers making an approach to a group of women, or warning individuals of particular ways in which traffickers may be targeting them and giving them tips on to handle certain situations - although some of these have also been criticised for feeding misconception around so-called ‘stranger danger’ and the prevalence of abduction attempts over the far more common technique of luring vulnerable people in by building up a relationship and gaining their trust.

Digital identification and verification (ID&V) and technological advancements like facial recognition and reverse image searching can help identify traffickers and victims alike, on road traffic cameras and hotel security footage as well as images on social media platforms. Normalising the concept of due diligence and incorporating it into your daily life so it becomes a habit, whether you’re a business or an individual, can help ensure you’re free of links to modern slavery and human trafficking. Using a platform like Themis Search gives you all the data you need at your fingertips to make informed decisions about who you choose to buy from, supply to or do business with.

There’s also scope for social media providers to use location data and content to identify people vulnerable to trafficking, to warn them of particular risks. The London Metropolitan Police, for example, has released online videos of Syrian migrant women warning foreigners about the realities of life under Islamic State, in an attempt to counter recruitment and trafficking. Social media providers have an unparalleled ability to ensure these messages get to the right audiences. If they are able to leverage the data they hold and access they provide, working with law enforcement and NGOs to understand how they can help, then such providers could be a key player in global anti-trafficking efforts.

Themis can help you to identify your potential links to modern slavery and human trafficking: our Themis Search due diligence platform - which allows you to search for links to all criminality and adverse media - is further underpinned by our proprietary conviction data on a range of financial crimes, including modern slavery and human trafficking and wildlife trafficking, which is continually updated by our specialist financial crime researchers. Book a free demo with one of our team here.

Our Risk Assessment Tool also allows you to analyse your business and third party relationships for links or vulnerabilities to financial crime, including modern slavery and human trafficking - so you can map out where there may be a risk of forced labour, for example, in your supply chain. Book a free demo with one of our team here.

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