The relation between human trafficking and technology in the contemporary world is a complex and an ambiguous issue. Recent advancements in technology such as mobile phones, the internet, social media networks and others have undoubtedly made our lives and communications easier and at the same time have become an important ally in the battle against organized crime.
Though no one can doubt technology’s significant contribution to our lives, the problematic of the issue arises when technology is not used to eliminate crime (in our case human trafficking) but is instead used to facilitate it. A problematic that rationally poses the following question:
“What happens when the weapon (technology) used for the elimination of crime is the same weapon used against people’s safety?”
To examine whether technology and human trafficking are enemies or allies, it would be helpful to first explain what we mean by the term “human trafficking” and why it is so prevalent in the modern world.
Human Trafficking: An Overview
Even though definitions of human trafficking vary, in general “trafficking in persons” has been defined as a modern form of slavery involving the trade of humans (adults and minors) for the purpose of exploitation.
The international definition of human trafficking has been primarily covered by the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (also known as UN TIP Protocol). The Trafficking Protocol is one of the three Protocols of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), also known as the Palermo Convention, and is globally considered the first legally binding document on trafficking.
The Trafficking Protocol, the only legal instrument including an agreed definition on trafficking in persons, aims to engage its member-states to confront and fight human trafficking through international cooperation.
Article 3 paragraph (a) of the Trafficking Protocol defines human trafficking as the act of recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by using means of force, threat, abduction, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, “or by giving or receiving payment or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person” with aim of exploiting them. Under this article, exploitation is defined as the use of the victims in commercial sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery, removal of their organs and others.
Despite the fact that “90 percent of the world’s countries” have passed legislation criminalizing human trafficking, it is still predominant in the contemporary world (UN.GIFT). The reason why trafficking in persons is still flourishing, lays on its high economic profits that have established it as a thriving business.
According to Wheaton et al, (2010) “As people become vulnerable to exploitation and businesses continually seek the lowest-cost labour sources, trafficking human beings generates profit and a market for human trafficking is created”.
Human trafficking is considered globally the third most profitable criminal industry after drugs and arms trafficking, with its estimated annual profits reaching almost $36 billion per year, states the UN (UN News Centre, 2014). The majority of trafficked victims are women and children. Based on the estimations of the latest UN report “Global Report on Trafficking in Persons”, 49 percent of trafficked victims were found to be women, 33 percent children and 18 percent men (UNDOC, 2014, p. 5).
Technology – Human Trafficking: Allies or Enemies
The relationship between technology and human trafficking is not a straightforward matter. Article 27(3) of the UNTOC states that member-states of the convention should
“endeavour to conduct law enforcement cooperation in order to respond to transnational organized crime committed through the use of modern technology”.
Nowadays, through the use of advanced technological means such as GPS, smartphones, the internet, social media networks and others, law enforcement can communicate faster and more effectively, identify traffickers and trace their activities by tracking their mobile phones, transactions, online correspondence and social media profiles. In addition, all the above have been extensively used by individuals, groups, agencies, non-governmental organizations and others to raise global awareness on the issue and often prevent such criminal activities in great effect.
Several technological tools, platforms and services have been created to ease international cooperation, investigation and communication among law enforcers, expand their skills and knowledge through relevant training (e.g. e- learning) and support/protect victims of trafficking and witnesses more beneficially (e.g. anonymity of the witness/victim through video-link testimonies) (UN.GIFT B.P.:017,2008).
For example, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), an international intergovernmental organization comprised of 190 countries fighting crime worldwide through the collaboration of authorities and other law enforcement agencies, has certainly used modern technology to its advantage. Through the use of the I-24/7 and I-link tools, INTERPOL has achieved better communication, cooperation, investigation and exchange of sensitive information around the world. For the fight against human trafficking, INTERPOL has also created the tool “The Human Smuggling and Trafficking (HST) message [to provide] a standardized format for reporting cases of trafficking between member countries and INTERPOL’s database”.
Another example can be found in 2003 when the Virtual Global Taskforce, a group of law enforcement agencies (such as Interpol, Europol, Australian Federal Police (AFP) and others) created the initiative Operation PIN (Visual Global Taskforce Website). Operation PIN launched/operated webpages that supposedly contained child pornography/abuse material (UN.GIFT B.P.:017, 2008). In fact the websites were a trap, driven by law enforcement agencies aiming to identify and apprehend internet users who were seeking or having access to this kind of material. Entering the site, the user was being informed that his/her data had been recorded and he/she had committed a criminal offence (BBC, 2003 & UN.GIFT B.P.:017, 2008).
Certainly, modern technology has played an important role in the fight against human trafficking. Nonetheless, it has also crucially helped its facilitation, allowing criminals to expand their geographical activities, communicate with each other, perform financial transactions and recruit and exploit their victims easier and more rapidly (Latonero M, 2012, p.10).
Mobile phones and online platforms such as social media networks, websites, chatrooms and other types of modern communication and advertisement are extensively used by traffickers to target, attract, recruit, promote and sell their future victims. In 2008, the defendant and mother of two children advertised the sale of her children through the internet. According to the case study the sale of the children was negotiated via phone calls and online correspondence. The offender was arrested in Guatemala and was charged for human trafficking and conspiracy (UNODC No.: GTM007).
In 2006 Polish and Italian authorities joined forces under the “Terra Promessa” operation saving 113 victims who had been trafficked for forced labor. The authorities dismantled the criminal organization that trafficked men from Italy and Poland. The victims were recruited through newspaper and internet job advertisements and they were forced to work for 15 hours under the guarding of armed men. (Ministry of Interior and Administration, 2008, pp. 72-77 & UNODC, 2008, p.199).
The United States v. Bennett case is also a significant study that helps us understand how traffickers use modern technology to easily lure their victims for exploitation purposes. In 2005, a 13 year old girl met the offender, Bennett through the internet. Coming form an unstable family environment and after the exchange of several messages through the internet (between the victim and the offender), the girl was persuaded to meet the perpetrator who was later discovered to have aimed to use the victim for prostitution. Bennett and the girl, who travelled from Texas, got caught in California. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit found Bennett guilty for persuading, inducing, enticing and kidnapping, a minor for sex trafficking.
As Skinner and Maher note “Traffickers […] are no longer uneducated, “paan-chewing” men, but carry cell phones, video cameras, and speak cultured English instead, allowing them to exploit women and children more efficiently and effectively than ever before”.
Human trafficking is more prevalent in advanced countries that have more and easier access to modern technology when compared to developing countries. According to Shared Hope International:
“As one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, the US faces the challenge of combating facilitation of sex tourism and sex trafficking markets by technology. Widespread availability and affordability of digital cameras and video cameras makes the production of child pornography and pornography involving sex trafficking victims easy and inexpensive.”
Whether technology is an ally or an enemy to human trafficking is a question that still remains to be answered. Technology by itself is not destructive or dangerous to the human race; the real threat here is the way it is used. As long as traffickers use advanced technologies for their benefit – to exploit their victims more efficiently, the need to fight crime through technology will also keep getting bigger every day. Advancements in technology will never end and the only solution to combat crime and face the modern world’s challenges is to fight “fire with fire”, or to put it better “technology with technology”.
BBC (2003) Police to Trap Online Pedophiles BBC News available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3329567.stm
INTERPOL Official Website Available at: http://www.interpol.int/
Latonero et al., (2011) “Human Trafficking Online: The Role of Social Networking Sites and Online Classifieds” USC Annenberg Ctr. on Commc’n Leadership & Policy
Latonero et al., (2012) “The Rise of Mobile and the Diffusion of Technology-Facilitated Trafficking” USC Annenberg Ctr. on Commc’n Leadership & Policy
Ministry of Interior and Administration (2008) Trafficking In Human Beings in Poland Available at: file:///C:/Users/Nassia/Downloads/Trafficking_in_Human_Beings_in_Poland.pdf
Shared Hope International, Demand: A Comparative Examination of Sex Tourism and Trafficking in Jamaica, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United States (Washington, DC: Shared Hope International, 2007)
Skinner R, and Maher C, “Child Trafficking and Organized Crime: Where Have all the Young Girls Gone?” Youth Advocate Program International Resource Paper p.2. Available at: http://yapi.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/report-child-trafficking.pdf
UN General Assembly (UNGA), United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime or Palermo convention (UNCTOC) (as adopted by the General Assembly in 2001), A/RES/55/25, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3b00f55b0.html
UN News Centre (2014) Human trafficking has no place in modern world, General Assembly President says http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=48271#.VZk9g_nBzGd
UN.GIFT (2014) “Human trafficking a low-risk, high-gain crime, says UNODC “ Available at: http://www.ungift.org/knowledgehub/en/stories/September2014/human-trafficking-a-low-risk–high-gain-crime–says-unodc.html
UN.GIFT, The Vienna Forum to fight Human Trafficking 13-15 February 2008 – Technology and Human Trafficking “UN.GIFT B.P.:017 (Austria, 2008)
UNDOC No.:GTM007, Case No. 72-2011 Available at: https://static.unodc.org/cld/case-law-doc/traffickingpersonscrimetype/gtm/2011/case_no._72-2011_.html?tmpl=old
UNGA, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children or Trafficking Protocol Supplement to the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime(UN TIP Protocol) ( as adopted in 2000 and entered into force in 2003) U.N. GAOR 55th Sess., Supp. No. 49, U.N. Doc. A/45/49 available at: http://www.unodc.org/documents/treaties/UNTOC/Publications/TOC%20Convention/TOCebook-e.pdf
UNODC, Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.14.V.10)
UNODC, Toolkit to Combat Trafficking in Persons, United Nations Publications, 2008
USA v. Bennett, No. 06-41233 (5th Cir. 2007) Available at: http://www.law.umich.edu/CLINICAL/HUTRAFFICCASES/Pages/CaseDisp.aspx?caseID=154
Visual Global Taskforce Official Website Available at: http://www.virtualglobaltaskforce.com/