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Online Exploitation: How the Internet Fuels the Surge of Human Trafficking

Hundreds, if not thousands, of domestic workers, are bought and sold like commodities on the Haraj App in Saudi Arabia. If you pick up your phone and open what’s been referred to as an ‘online slave market’, you can scroll through daily advertisements selling migrant workers, and even sort them according to price and race. Although the issue of trafficking maids has persisted for many years in Saudi Arabia, the advent of technology has transformed its scale, creating a grave humanitarian and moral crisis.


At any given time, there exist 27.6 million victims of trafficking all over the globe. For 40 percent of them, their victimhood starts with the Internet, making it the predominant platform for their recruitment. The Internet has thus revolutionized the realm of human trafficking and modern slavery, granting traffickers unprecedented access to disturbingly effective methods of manipulation at their fingertips. Exploitation has never been as convenient as it is now.


Recruitment of Victims

As of today, 5.18 billion people use the Internet. For most but especially for those who are financially or interpersonally vulnerable, their smartphones serve as a vital lifeline connecting them to the outside world. COVID-19 amplified this as people had no choice but to venture online if they wished to continue contact with everyone else. This increased use of the Internet and social networking websites allows traffickers to pick from a large collection of victims that, given geographical boundaries, would have been impossible otherwise.


The first step is establishing contact. There are two methods for this. Some traffickers prefer the personalized approach of connecting with victims directly, texting potential victims on social media, online gaming platforms, or dating websites. The aim behind this is simple. Traffickers want to build intimate and trustworthy relationships with their victims. When they then later introduce possibilities of participating in sexual acts or presenting possible job opportunities, victims receive it against a backdrop of acceptance and comfort.


Two main features of the Internet expedite this process. The first is that digital communication inherently provides traffickers with a mask of anonymity. They can be whatever age or gender they want. As a result, traffickers can pose as peers seeking a close and relatable online friendship with unsuspecting children. This is compounded by the fact that it is hard for parents to adequately police the vast online space. It comes as no surprise therefore that an estimated one-quarter of children reported missing in Indonesia are thought to have met their captors through Facebook. Sometimes, traffickers create multiple social media accounts to interact with the victim, one of which is used to write abusive messages while the other expresses compassion and care, creating artificial attachments to those profiles.


The second characteristic is the oversaturation of personal information online, as a result of both low digital literacy rates and the innate nature of social media. With a simple click on someone’s social media profile, traffickers become aware of who their friends and families are, where they live, and what they are interested in. This knowledge can then be used to establish relatability with someone alarmingly quickly and create targeted grooming techniques that prepare a victim for the abuse.

Another approach used is a less direct one, where the focus is on targeting a larger audience in the hopes that some will fall for the trap. To achieve this, traffickers use a wide array of platforms. Some create fake websites or post advertisements on legitimate employment portals, announcing a vacancy in a position. All a victim then has to do is look for a job. Indeed, over 80 percent of the U.S. Department of Justice’s sex trafficking prosecutions involved online advertising in 2020.


Exploitation of Victims

Once contact with a victim is established, traffickers use methods of control to keep them from escaping. Digitalization removes the need for them to be face-to-face with their victims, allowing them to send threats of violence and deception from anywhere.


The nature of these threats has been mutated due to the ever-pervasive nature of technology. A trafficker can use location-tracking software or global positioning systems to be aware of every step the victim takes. They can establish control over cameras or demand sudden video calls that allow them to inspect the victim and their surroundings at any moment.


Apart from facilitating monitoring, the Internet also facilitates coercion. They can also threaten to leak any compromising information or sexual recordings of the victim they have obtained as a result of the trust they built before. As the Internet and the connection established to the victim are ubiquitous, traffickers possess the power to exert constant threats upon them, which extends to their families and friends. The scale of this exploitation may be broader as well. Video hosting services allow offenders to broadcast sexual acts while the Internet enables traffickers to advertise their ‘commodity’, both to a much larger audience.


The alarming reality is that this trafficking often hides in plain sight, using cryptic codes as messages, or branding itself as legitimate legal services like booking a massage.


Ease in Coordination

The Internet has significantly lowered the barriers of entry to becoming a trafficker. As trafficking is a cross-border operation that carries a significant risk of detection by law enforcement, coordination is often a prerequisite for successful trafficking. The ease of communication and collaboration across the globe facilitated by the Internet makes it easier to coordinate trafficking operations. It is essential to use a platform that has no geographical bounds for a process so global in nature. In contrast, without technology, trafficking could only be conducted by the limited number of organized crime groups that have physical criminal infrastructure and workforce spread across multiple countries.


Additionally, the rising popularity of digital financial transactions and cryptocurrencies has allowed traffickers to switch to financing online. This method allows them to transfer large sums of money without any fear of being detected. This has meant that on the net, more traffickers are now able to easily organize and finance their efforts, independent of whether victims are found online or using traditional methods.


Conclusion

As technology keeps developing at a swift pace, it is hard for law and enforcement authorities to keep up with its inherent capacity to further modern slavery. Traffickers are taking advantage of loopholes in regulatory measures and data tracking, coupled with the surge in Internet usage by their potential victims. Social media companies often have limited incentive to act as the Communication Decency Act allows them to shirk all accountability. According to the Act, you cannot hold social media companies accountable for what happens on their platforms unless they had active knowledge of it. Ignorance can be profitable.


As we move towards a world that wants to effectively combat human trafficking, we must acknowledge the evolving dynamics of the crime and its intersection with technology. It is paramount to ensure adequate investment in equipment and digital training for law enforcement. We must also revise existing legal and policy frameworks like the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) to ensure the accountability of private companies and foster collaboration between them and government authorities.


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