Human trafficking is one of the world’s most shameful crimes. While human trafficking is not yet the most profitable illicit trade – that honor goes to narcotics trafficking – it is likely the fastest growing. This low cost, high profit crime is thought to be a 32 billion dollar industry. Despite the frequency of the crime, human trafficking remains largely hidden from society, but has arguably become more prevalent with the accessibility of both low and high technology.
Technology’s contribution to human trafficking has been mixed. Technology has helped to combat human trafficking by allowing law enforcement to identify perpetrators more easily by tracking cell phones and financial transactions, identifying sellers, and mapping criminal activities. However, technology has also made the facilitation of human trafficking far easier for criminal networks. For example, technology has created new online platforms for recruitment, especially when vulnerable populations can be more easily identified and targeted. In addition, human traffickers are increasingly leveraging the internet and cell phones to attract buyers of trafficking victims, making the selling of sex more seamless.
The sheer volume of available data generated by technology can create a tremendous amount of work for law enforcement to sift through, though, requiring better coordination between law enforcement and effective information-sharing procedures to prevent traffickers and criminal networks from gaining the upper-hand. To complicate the matter, a significant portion of the electronic information about human trafficking that could be used to better counter it is piecemeal and subject to privacy rules. Disparate databases contain information like state anti-trafficking legislation; pending trafficking-related cases; financial transactions commonly associated with trafficking; criminal justice and service-providers’ best practices; and human trafficking prevalence estimates. Data that is available is often stored using non-standardized terms, making it challenging to aggregate with other databases.
Traffickers, on the other hand, are not bound by confidentiality rules with regards to sharing trafficking-related information. Accordingly, many have managed to replicate technological best practices from other illicit activities and apply them to the human trafficking space, including identifying available smuggling routes, leveraging communication networks, sharing bank accounts, and making wire transfers. The same networks that facilitate legitimate international business can also be a part of criminal activities, making it even more difficult for law enforcement to decipher the legal from the illegal. In fact, many “legal businesses” are simply shells for illicit activities – arms or narcotics smuggling, counterfeiting, money laundering, and/or human trafficking.
Human trafficking activities, like any market-driven business, respond to supply and demand. When major events take place, an increase in demand often leads to an uptick in human trafficking. The Super Bowl, for example, attracts thousands of people to the host city, generating millions of dollars for the local economy. Behind the public celebrations, however, a quiet system of sex trafficking often goes largely unnoticed. A Forbes article revealed that an estimated 10,000 prostitutes were brought to the 2010 Super Bowl in Florida, that Texas made 133 underage arrests for prostitution around the 2011 Super Bowl, and that Louisiana made 85 arrests for human trafficking and prostitution around the 2013 Super Bowl.
One method used to combat human trafficking around the Super Bowl is legislation. Florida, Texas, Indiana, and Louisiana all tightened their anti-trafficking ahead of hosting the Super Bowl. New Jersey, which will host the Super Bowl in 2014, has already amended its laws in advance of the event. Beyond legislation, states, in coordination with local and national non-profits, often launch awareness and outreach campaigns, such as trainings for the hospitality and travel industries (bars, hotels, motels, restaurants, flight attendants, cab drivers) on how to recognize sex trafficking victims. Still, the extent of the problem begs the question of what technology could be applied to better detect and combat traffickers and their activities around major events, like the Super Bowl.
In Dallas and New Orleans, law enforcement officials in 2011 and 2013, respectively, proposed using unmanned areal vehicles (UAVs) around the Super Bowl. UAVs would be used like traditional manned helicopters to survey crowds and potentially monitor suspicious criminal activities, including sex trafficking. An advantage of UAVs is that they allow for real-time data collection using live video signals. This video is then transmitted back to a “war room”, of sorts. UAVs are already patrolling border areas in Arizona, Florida, and North Dakota, examples of how UAVs can assist law enforcement in surveillance and patrolling. UAVs are also being used to monitor drug trafficking, gathering intelligence on the movements of drug cartels and human smugglers between the US and Mexico. The FBI recently revealed that it uses UAVs for surveillance in hostage and barricade situations.
Nevertheless, a number of legitimate concerns exist around UAVs, particularly with regards to civil liberties and privacy. These very concerns are what prevented both Texas and New Orleans from using UAVs for security and crowd monitoring during their Super Bowls. Clear rules for individual protection must be set before their use.
Despite these concerns, the extent to which human traffickers leverage the internet, coupled with the abysmally low identification rate of victims, suggests that new ways to combat trafficking via technology are required. Whether by using UAVs, increasing online investigations by law enforcement, or developing more innovative data sharing tools to facilitate cross-organizational cooperation, technology will need to play a vital role in fighting trafficking.
Ieva Pundina is an International Research Fellow at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, where she focuses on human trafficking and national security issues. She previously worked as a lawyer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia, where she will return to this fall. Her expertise is in European Union and international law. She holds a master degree from University of Maastricht, European Law School, Netherlands.
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