Technology continues to be a double-edged sword in combating human trafficking

(The Center Square) – Human trafficking brings in $236 billion dollars a year, according to the International Labor Organization.

Microsoft’s 2023 revenue totaled $212 billion.

The U.S….

(The Center Square) – Human trafficking brings in $236 billion dollars a year, according to the International Labor Organization.

Microsoft’s 2023 revenue totaled $212 billion.

The U.S. Department of State estimates that there are 27 million people worldwide who are “exploited for labor, services, and commercial sex,” according to the 2024 Trafficking in Persons report.

The report details the efforts being taken – and not taken – around the globe.

While human trafficking is primarily thought of as the physical movement of humans, there is a need to understand the phenomena in a more nuanced way, Kelsey Morgan told The Center Square.

Morgan is co-founder and chief program officer of EverFree, a non-profit working to support human trafficking survivors.

Because extortion methods have significantly evolved in the digital age, their use in facilitating human trafficking has as well.

“You can be trafficked in your own home,” Morgan said.

Traditional methods of physical extortion have been augmented by sophisticated cyber extortion tactics. Increasingly, traffickers are using online platforms to facilitate various forms of extortion, ranging from forced labor and services to outright financial demands.

“A trafficker may create an online business website, perhaps posing as a talent recruiter, on which they often include realistic photos to gain a victim’s trust and make them believe the opportunity is authentic and will help … improve their life,” according to the report.

The report also says that the narratives surrounding human trafficking are sensationalized and do not accurately reflect the range of experiences and incentives for human trafficking.

“What you usually see is a rescue story,” Morgan said. “There is no back story.”

Morgan says that the vulnerabilities exploited by traffickers are not sufficiently talked about or understood.

Individuals struggling with poverty, natural disaster or war are common victims who may be easily exploitable, according to the report.

In the fight against human trafficking, the internet is used in both ways – simultaneously working to facilitate and combat it.

“Traffickers adapt their schemes to take advantage of the obscurity available with new online tools, such as hiding behind anonymization tools or software, and benefiting from loose regulations of online platforms,” the report said.

According to Morgan, a recent report identified 104 million suspected child sexual abuse material online.

“That’s up from 450,000 20 years ago,” Morgan said. “The size and scope of the issue is overwhelming.”

Law enforcement and legislators are having a hard time keeping up with the torrent of sexual abuse and human trafficking more broadly.

In 2023, the CyberTipline received 186,819 reports of online enticement, marking a 132% increase from 80,524 reports in 2022 and a 323% increase from 44,155 reports in 2021, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“Law enforcement agencies must be better resourced to combat technology-facilitated human trafficking or use technology for human trafficking investigations,” the report says. “This can be achieved through greater investment in staff, training, and software.”

The internet offers traffickers two valuable resources needed to commit large-scale trafficking: anonymity and reach, the report said.

The vast and ever-evolving nature of the internet allows cybercriminals to hide their identities and exploit global networks, making it difficult for authorities to trace and apprehend them.

Anonymizing software like Tor is free to use and is encrypted, making users and their data nearly impossible to track.

The famous Silk Road dark-web platform used Tor to facilitate its markets, which included child sexual abuse, murder for hire, heroin trafficking, and even human organ trafficking.

Child sexual abuse is not limited to the dark web, however.

“Predators are luring kids with popular games,” Morgan said. “They’re on family-friendly spaces and sites for children.”

The report details two operations which, altogether, resulted in the arrest of 11 traffickers, identified 1,300 malicious servers, and located over 2,400 IP addresses associated with cybercrime.

Morgan says that targeting individual traffickers is not enough.

“We have to hold our corporations accountable,” Morgan said. “We cannot keep prioritizing profits over the safety of our children.”