Technology’s influence in human trafficking, child pornography and sexual exploitation

With the birth of the Internet the world, and people lives along with it, changed completely: the way we live, communicate and relate has been shaped ever since into a product of technology. In the era of the Web, no one would dare to say that being able to get access to the countless possibilities given use by the Net is a shame, but like everything else the web has a dark side to its story, and moreover, to its use.

As time got by and the use of this technology became every day’s life element, the internet became a useful tool to the organized crime: human trafficking and sexual exploitation are two of the plagues that benefitted from it. Taking into consideration that ICT technologies are unable to function without the human factor, at least a person has to be involved into this horrible practice: since many traffickers use a computer to perform their deeds, sadly technology is directly correlated to the crimes committed. 

Often confused with “smuggling”, which refers to the illegal but voluntary transportation of a person across a border, trafficking has been defined by the United Nations as: “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

It is possible to identify and classify human trafficking in two categories: forced labour and sexual exploitation, which main victims are women and children. 

In the dark world of sexual trafficking we can identify two main actors, both described as predators, who profit from the sexual exploitations of their victims: ‘pimps’ and ‘johns’. The term ‘pimps’ refers to the individuals who profit from the exploitation of others; they sometimes offer protection but it’s not unusual for their prey to physically controlled and abused. As for ‘johns’ we’re referring to the individuals who pay and buy the services of the exploited. 

Since the use of the internet has become a main factor for predators to stalk their prey, a project conducted by the Keene Police Department over three year has tried to analyse the kind of individuals which try to lure their victims, specifically children, from the internet. The results show that the average predator range in age from seventeen years old to fifty-six, an average of thirty-five; but what is most striking is that 38% of them are collocated between 17 and 39 years, and most of them are collectors of child pornography. 

Two reasons have been identified as the main ones leading to the phenomenon of sexual trafficking and exploitation: economic and educational. After the fall of the Soviet Union a large number of people had found themselves unemployed and on the brick of losing everything they had, so either they fell easily into the hands of the traffickers lured by promises of a better life or became traffickers themselves. On the other hand, the lack of education is a fundamental factor: poor and illiterate people were dragged into the web pf the sexual traffic by promises of high paying jobs in a new foreign country. 

Since this phenomenon is so hard to keep track of, there are no reliable statistics to really understand its scope, but the United Nations estimates that four million people every year are trafficked, and two main areas are to be considered: Western and Northern Europe as destinations and Eastern and Central Europe as sources for preys. 

The internet itself and social medias have become a new arena for traffickers to identify their next victim: once identified, it’s easy to keep track of the movements of the chosen prey, or if the victim is already under the control of its abductor it’s simple for them to control of their position.  

Fundamental to the sick system put in motion by these traffickers is communication: buyers and other people who needs to be coordinated in the process need to have easy accessibility to communications, and applications for messaging are a key element: without leaving a trace, since only a Wi-Fi connection is frequently required, meeting points are arranged, prices and traps for the victims are set. 

It is possible to identify some of the main features of the human trafficking network that have been widely influence by the emergence of modern-day technology; the first and most immediate one is how the use of social media made possible for predators to identify their victims (social media offer a wide catalogue from which stalkers and predators can chose from). Technological blackmail is another of the dark faces of ICTs: it offers a powerful tool of control over the preys. 

On a brighter note technology made it easier for law enforcement to set up traps for predators following the digital clues and traces they left; it has helped to submit a new kind of evidence that can be presented during the legal process of prosecution against both traffickers and perpetrators. Unfortunately, due to the relatively new form of evidence presented, judges and juries often don’t know how to use the tools provided to them.

During the past years, numerous kinds of technologies available have been used in the process of human trafficking, including mainstream communications like cable TV. Scanners and video digits are used now-days to upload old pornographic and pedo-pornographic content online, while DVDs of sexually exploited victims can be distributed; a new format of DVDs that allows users to interact with the videos like with videogames has been made available, making it possible to give to the user an active role in the movie. Internet applications and services have been used too to share and obtain this kind of materials: web sites have been considered the main platforms for the distribution of pornographic contents, but also file swapping programs, file transfer protocols and search engines contributes to the plague. The dark web allows sites like Backpage, which has been banned by Google for years, and Craigslist to advertise escorts and dating profiles, facilitating sexual encounters for predators.  Chat rooms have been found to be the most common mean by which sexual predators and paedophiles get I touch with their potential victims: 89% of sexual solicitations take place in chat rooms.

Governments all over the world have taken actions to prevent and make sure that correct and effective measures are taken against cyber-crimes: the International Convention on Cybercrimes is considered the first official act battling against those who engage in this kind of activities, taking two directions to improve the quality of the measure offered to the ones in need: prevention against victimization of women and children, and prevention against behaviour of men and criminal organizations. 

The process of eliminating human trafficking has still a long way to go, but new ICTs are developing all over the world in hope to contrast and extinguish this curse, not only contributing to it: Spotlight and Microsoft PhotoDNA are two examples. Spotlight is a web-based tool implemented by Thorn, an NGO founded by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore to help fight children sexual trafficking and pornography, that helps finding victim of sexual trafficking faster; this technology, used in all fifty American states, has helped identifying 31,197 victims and has improved the process by saving 63% of the time in researches. Microsoft PhotoDNA too has helped the cause a great deal: by putting a grid over images it gives numerical values to each square of the photo, giving it a ‘DNA’, which can be traced to other files uploaded on the internet and making it possible to trace them.

Technology has changed our lives a great deed, but as everything else we’re able to use, it’s our responsibility to be sure it is handled in the right way: this puts the need for legislations and laws to be designed to make sure that everyone, women, men and children are protected like expected complying to human’s rights.  

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