July 7, 2022

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The role of digital intelligence in human trafficking investigations

By Matt Parker and Mark Gambill According to the Trafficking in America Taskforce, forced labor generates a total...

By Matt Parker and Mark Gambill

According to the Trafficking in America Taskforce, forced labor generates a total of approximately $150 billion per year in illegal profits in the private economy. Of this figure, about $99 billion comes from commercial sexual exploitation. Given the highly profitable nature of the human trafficking industry, it’s no surprise that the number of people impacted by these crimes is staggering.  

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that from 2003 to 2018, 225,000 trafficking victims have been identified worldwide. Of these, 46% were women, 19% were girls, and 1 in 3 were children.

Furthering the problem is the impact of COVID-19. The U.S. State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report estimated the pandemic impacted nearly 70% of trafficking victims’ financial well-being. This is critical, as many people who were affected financially sought work elsewhere and found themselves in dangerous and often exploitative situations.   

Act fast with digital intelligence

A common misperception about human trafficking is that people only hear about large-scale, global operations. However, most of these cases aren’t high profile and a significant amount of trafficking occurs in local communities. While organized crime syndicates often run large-scale human trafficking operations, a large proportion of trafficking is carried out locally by people in the same region and country as their victims. It’s also not uncommon for victims to be trafficked at the hands of known people, like family members, friends, or relatives.  

Even in the U.S., which has one of the lowest numbers of reported human trafficking cases worldwide, perpetrators often groom minors to run away from home and then sell them into the trafficking world run by fellow Americans within just 24 hours.   

Time is everything here. Law enforcement agencies and non-profit organizations must work together to look for new data-driven methods to effectively (and rapidly) combat human trafficking. 

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like The Exodus Road bring a unique perspective to human trafficking because they devote large amounts of time and research to investigations. Combined with law enforcement’s resources to investigate crimes, tech-savvy agencies and NGOs can cut the number of human trafficking cases by working together to fight the traffickers forcing or coercing individuals into involuntary labor and other forms of exploitation. 

One of the critical strategic resources available to both law enforcement agencies and NGOs is digital intelligence (DI) technology.

DI tools include automated data extraction solutions that can help to obtain, preserve and analyze private and public social media data, activities, backups and other cloud-based content using a forensically sound and lawful process.

It works in several stages. First, devices and data sources such as smartphones, computers and cloud domains are unlocked quickly and easily to give teams faster access to content that could be crucial to an investigation. Once unlocked, data recovery methods such as bootloaders, automatic EDL and smart ADB enable extractions from advanced file systems, the data then being converted into readable formats via advanced decoding software.

When these solutions are used in combination with AI-driven analytics to highlight relevant leads from multiple devices, law enforcement agencies can streamline and expedite cases through a variety of means. This includes the ability to recognize people, places and objects instantly, skip to relevant scenes in video files and visualize case reports.

Law enforcement agencies can leverage these insights to speed up investigations while at the same time helping to plug gaps in knowledge, which can stem from survivors’ reluctance to and fear of speaking out.

Indeed, DI technology can be used to transform the data collection processes, identify leads and make critical connections to corroborate digital evidence throughout the investigative process – leveraging these solutions greatly reduces the chances of vital evidence being overlooked and, critically, can save valuable time. 

Furthermore, law enforcement agencies should be turning to more fact-based, hard evidence to create compelling cases and increase the chances of conviction once perpetrators have been caught. As traffickers themselves become more sophisticated in how they utilize today’s technologies, the best evidence against them is often digital – this includes text messages, images and other online interactions that can be captured with DI technology.   

Digital competency is not enough

It’s not enough for law enforcement agencies to simply utilize digital intelligence in their approach. Training holds the key to maximizing the potential of digital intelligence in human trafficking investigations. The process of capturing actionable intelligence via digital intelligence technology requires training for both law enforcement and their non-profit partners.

This must complement knowledge and understanding of the processes and procedures involved in a successful investigation of human trafficking. In addition to digital intelligence and other technologies, law enforcement agencies, NGOs and local communities should know what human trafficking looks like, how it works and what types of evidence to look out for. The Exodus Road provides this kind of training for the public and law enforcement in its TraffickWatch Academy platforms. 

Both NGOs and law enforcement agencies must understand the protocols that must be upheld in an investigation to ensure evidence is admissible in court. This includes understanding how digital evidence works and is lawfully collected, and how to document its origin. For a case against traffickers to be admissible in a court of law, prosecutors must maintain digital chains of evidence in a watertight manner.

And as law enforcement agencies and non-profit organizations tackle the widespread issue of human trafficking together, they also need to turn their focus from single crimes to crime syndicates.

To stop trafficking on a larger scale, agencies need the tools and training to lawfully collect digital evidence and trace traffickers to their wider syndicates. Having digital intelligence solutions in the hands of law enforcement is critical to upscaling these efforts and reversing the tide.  

NEXT: How technology-focused training can improve police investigations


About the authors

Matt Parker is the co-founder of The Exodus Road, and Mark Gambill is the CMO for Cellebrite.

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