When it comes to trafficking, technology is an enabler. The role of technology in human trafficking – be it for bonded labour or sexual exploitation, is central to the operations of traffickers. Not only does it provide a layer of anonymity, but it also helps to lure and locate victims with pinpoint accuracy.
The Sundarbans in West Bengal were already famous for the sex trafficking that takes place with women of all ages. The area is economically deprived, which makes it a hotspot for traffickers, who lure victims into a life of servitude with promises of stable employment and steady money on pretext of a better life elsewhere. But whereas in the past, the trafficker had to physically go and recruit victims, now this is done over social media and online platforms via mobile phones. The reach of the internet in rural parts of India has made it much easier for cybercriminals to cherry-pick their victims. And when you add social media to the equation, that makes the job of bad actors almost facile.
Trafficking is an organized crime, it functions with big groups of people who are involved in advertising, selling, buying, and keeping activities undercover. Most traffickers are not very sophisticated in the usage of technology but they primarily use social networking sites, cell phones, and online advertising. But any platform/website that allows people to connect and have positive interactions, also invariably enables various forms of illicit interactions.
Social networks play a big part in the prostitution of young people. Making groups on social media to recruit members, and making the groups private to keep prying eyes away. The sale of sex has shifted online, with traffickers taking advantage of the anonymity that the internet allows them, in addition to potential clients who are just a click away. It is no secret that ‘sex sells’, and there is a vast market for it. India also sees prevalence in cases of child sexual abuse material (CSAM)
Online prostitution rings have been running for a long time in India, with vast networks established across neighbouring borders and states that transport minors and women around. They use social media to plan and coordinate the movement of their victims across India. Live webcams are being used for the purpose of creating CSAM and peer-to-peer networks are being used to circulate these images and videos.
But technology can enable as well as impede trafficking. The Anti Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) – Rachakonda in Hyderabad, Telangana – busted a human trafficking racket that was operating online through dating apps on mobile phones. The racket was running in Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Hyderabad, and Rajasthan, and technology provided trace data that helped law enforcement.
Child Sex Trafficking – Minors are bought and sold for sex, and technology is actually making it worse. It made the whole process more visible, but people don’t want to see it happening. The ‘child trafficking for organ’ trade is rife in Bengaluru, and to stop this from happening Bengaluru is using facial recognition technology to thwart trafficking. The Face Tagger mobile phone app is being used by police to identify victims and the railway station has been fitted with cameras that use face recognition software. This is linked to the National Criminal Database to identify serial offenders to try and catch traffickers. The government also initiated the world’s largest Automated Facial Recognition Software (AFRS) to identify criminals and missing children in 2019.
Trafficking content on the internet is not always as visible as one might think. That is why, with the use of technology like artificial intelligence, law enforcement looks for patterns in activity, and checks what search terms are being used. Microsoft also created technology in partnership with Dartmouth College, called PhotoDNA to disrupt the process of trafficking by finding and removing images of child sexual exploitation.
Author: Mr. Naman Sareen, Research Associate, CyberPeace Foundation