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Traffickers abusing online technology, UN crime prevention agency warns   |

Investigations by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Sexual abuse and other forms of exploitation take place virtually, and photos and videos are resold to customers around the world on various platforms, generating even more money for traffickers at no additional cost.

New strategies

This week, experts from around 100 countries met online and in Vienna to discuss strategies to combat this phenomenon and to make the best use of technologies for prevention human trafficking and investigate cases of this crime.

The discussion was part of the annual Intergovernmental Conference Working group on human trafficking and focuses on an in-depth Background paper on this subject, published by the UNODC Section on Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling.


Sexual abuse and other forms of exploitation take place virtually

Sexual abuse and other forms of exploitation take place virtually, by Unsplash / Priscilla du Preez

“Traffickers quickly adapt their business model to their needs and increase their profits, so of course they follow online trends,” explains Tiphanie Crittin, UNODC commissioner for crime prevention and criminal justice.

Exploitation of the dark web

“Traffickers currently use technology to profile, recruit, control and exploit their victims, and the Internet, especially the dark web, to hide illegal human trafficking material and their true identity from investigators.”

The illicit revenues from this highly profitable crime are also laundered online through cryptocurrencies, making it easier for human traffickers to obtain, hide and move large amounts of money with less risk of being discovered.

Today, the Internet offers easy access to a much larger group of potential victims as traditional physical and geographic restrictions no longer exist.

Traffickers create fake websites or post advertisements on legitimate employment portals and social networking sites.

Live chat scam

Some of these sites offer the possibility of a live chat. This gives the trafficker instant contact and the ability to obtain personal information such as passport details, thereby increasing his or her power over the victims.

Victims can be repeatedly exploited through live streaming across multiple websites, and there is no limit to the number and number of views of videos of their abuse.

The global nature of human trafficking and the misuse of technology make it even more difficult for law enforcement agencies to fight this crime, explains Ms. Crittin.

“When a crime is planned in one country, victim in another and a customer in a third, law enforcement agencies face practical challenges like finding and securing evidence, as any investigation requires cross-border collaboration and some level of digital communication Expertise, ”she says.

remote control

Traffickers use technology to remotely control their victims, sometimes without ever meeting them in person.

For over a decade, online advertising has been the main trafficking tactic used by traffickers to attract buyers for commercial sex

Location tracking applications and the use of global positioning systems in cell phones can be used to learn the victim’s location, while cameras in smartphones used during video calls allow traffickers to see their victims and their surroundings.

Traffickers also maintain control over their victims by threatening to share intimate photos or videos of them with families and friends if they fail to comply.

One of the panelists on the working group, Alexandra Gelber, Assistant Director of Policy and Legislation in the Department of Childhood Exploitation and Profanity at the US Department of Justice, highlighted the links between human trafficking and online technology in her country.

Online marketplace

“The data shows that around 40% of sex trafficking victims in the United States are recruited online, making the internet the most common place for victims to be recruited,” she says.

“For over a decade, online advertising has been the main trafficking tactic used by traffickers to attract buyers for commercial sex. In 2020 over 80% of the [Justice Department’s] The prosecution of sex trafficking involved online advertising. ”

Ms. Gelber adds that technology is also used to commit “virtual child sex trafficking”, which occurs when a perpetrator in the United States sends a digital payment to a trafficker in another country.

“The trafficker will then sexually abuse a child in front of a web camera, while the perpetrator in the US will watch a live stream of the abuse.”

COVID factor

the COVID-19 The pandemic has opened up more opportunities for traffickers due to the increased use of the internet, especially social networks and online video game sites.


Governments in more and more countries are deliberately cutting off the Internet or electronic communications and exercising control over the flow of information.

Traffickers create fake websites or post advertisements on legitimate employment portals and social networks, by Unsplash / Avi Richards

“Containment measures to curb the spread of the virus resulted in people spending a lot more time online, especially children, since schools were closed. We have seen an increase in child sexual exploitation materials created and shared online during the pandemic, ”says Tiphanie Crittin.

Despite the increased criminal use of technology by traffickers, technology can also be used to identify victims and aid police investigations and prosecutions.

Stricter framework conditions are required

“However, when investigators enter the digital world of citizens, they have access to personal data. To ensure that the right to privacy and human rights are respected, it is crucial to have strict frameworks for accessing and using data, ”said Ms. Crittin of UNODC.

The UNODC Background paper shares numerous examples of existing or promising partnerships and instruments that countries are using or developing. This includes digital forensics, tools for scanning data, smartphone apps and successful collaborations with technology, social media and internet companies.

UNODC also helped organize DataJams with computer giant IBM and Colombian NGO Pasos Libres, where students compete online to develop technology-based solutions to identify and protect victims of human trafficking and support law enforcement.