Taking a Lesson From Traffickers: Harnessing Technology To Further the Anti-Trafficking Movement

Ambassador-at-large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons John Richmond delivers a keynote address at the opening session of the 19th Alliance Against Trafficking in Persons Conference on April 8, 2019.

Taking a Lesson From Traffickers: Harnessing Technology To Further the Anti-Trafficking Movement’s Principal Goals

As prepared for delivery by Ambassador-at-large to Monitor & Combat Trafficking in Persons John Richmond
Remarks at the Opening Session of the 19th Alliance Against Trafficking in Persons Conference
Vienna, April 8, 2019

Thank you Val. Your Royal Highness, Excellencies and Distinguished Delegates, – Good afternoon.

I am delighted to join you today for the 19th Alliance against Trafficking in Persons. I would like to express my appreciation to Val Richey Acting Coordinator, and to the Office of the Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, for convening this annual event. I look forward to hearing the outcomes from this year’s challenging topic of technology, which follows the Alliance’s tradition of choosing emerging and leading topics related to combating trafficking in persons.


I am grateful that during my career I have been able to learn about the crime of human trafficking from several different perspectives. Whether it was living in India and working with an NGO to assist the government to identify cases, working as a federal labor and sex trafficking prosecutor in the United States, co-founding the Human Trafficking Institute, or serving as the United States global Ambassador for trafficking in persons, there has been one consistent thread – fighting exploitation and enslavement.

I have been fortunate to spend significant time with victims from all over the world and to really listen to them. Everyone is different; they are all individuals – but I have heard some consistent themes about the lies they suffered, the violence they have endured, their struggle for freedom, and their feelings of abandonment by systems charged with protecting them. I have learned a great deal from survivors. Conversations with survivors provide a perspective through the eyes of resilient victims.

I have also spent a lot of time interviewing human traffickers. In long conversations with the men and women who choose to commit this crime, they explained to me why they carried out the crime, who they targeted for recruitment, how they thought through their coercive schemes, how they encountered no significant risk of being caught by the authorities, and how they treated people as a commodity from whom they could reap significant illegal profits. Conversations with traffickers provide a perspective through the eyes of evil.

Issues of information and communications technologies often pop up in these discussions. This is true beyond conversations with survivors and traffickers; it also comes up in conversations with policy makers, legislators, law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers, trauma counselors, and others who are working to combat human trafficking. The OSCE has also addressed this subject in its work, including in the 2013 Addendum to the OSCE Action Plan, and in several subsequent Ministerial Decisions, such the 2017 Decision (7/17) on Strengthening Efforts to Combat All Forms of Child Trafficking and the 2018 Decision (6/18) on Strengthening Efforts to Prevent and Combat Child Trafficking, Including of Unaccompanied Minors.

This afternoon I would like to share a bit about how I have seen traffickers use technology and how I have seen people of good will use technology to fight trafficking. Then I want to talk about five principles that might guide your meetings this week, discuss some of technology’s limitations, and end with why this moment in history generates tangible hope that the global battle for freedom is winnable.

Traffickers’ Use of Technology

The fact that the use of technology is woven through the fabric of the anti-trafficking movement should not surprise us. Throughout history traffickers have misused each new advancement in technology to help them exploit victims in forced labor and sex trafficking.

• When financial systems allowed wire transfers, traffickers made use of wire services to move money.
• When photography advanced and gained widespread adoption, traffickers were quick to take advantage of the technology for use in advertising and coercing victims.
• When mobile phones became ubiquitous, many traffickers used them as an electronic tether to victims, using them to monitor their movements, control their actions, and keep tabs on them.
• When video surveillance systems became more common, traffickers wired establishments, like massage parlors, to monitor and control their victims.
• When online market places arose, traffickers were there seeking customers for their illegal enterprises.

I have seen traffickers use technology to recruit victims – trolling through Facebook trying to start conversations with potential victims. One trafficker told me that, for every 150 contact attempts, one person would respond. They would start a conversation and one respondent out of ten would bite on his baited hook of deception. He found this to be an effective return on investment – much more effective than trying to recruit victims in-person, one-by-one. This mass marketing recruitment strategy occurred because of technology.

Beyond recruitment, traffickers have used technology as part of their coercive schemes. Traffickers have compelled victims to engage in sex acts and then recorded those acts using a mobile phone video camera. Then the trafficker threatened to send the video recording to the victim’s family and friends and taunted the victims with the potential shame. What might surprise some is that this coercive tactic is just as effective in labor trafficking cases as it is in sex trafficking cases.

Whether it is peer-to-peer file sharing, live streaming, encrypted chat rooms, multi-player online video games, social media, or new means of value transfer, if innovators come up with it, traffickers will use it as another tool in their exploitation tool box. In a nutshell, we see traffickers using technology to help them do what they do more cheaply, more profitably, and more surreptitiously.

Technology to Stop Trafficking

Although technology can be a tool in the hand of the trafficker, it can also be a tool in our effort to identify traffickers and stop them from trafficking people.
(Of course, let me stop here and say parenthetically, that when I use the word “trafficking” as a verb, I am in no way joining the chorus of confusion that suggests that human trafficking requires movement. This audience is well-versed in the Palermo Protocol and understands that “trafficking in persons” does not require the movement of people across a border or even internally within a country. Trafficking is a crime of coercion not a crime of transportation.)

Structure and Continuity

We are witnessing key stakeholders pick up the mantle and use technology to do what they do better: stop traffickers, protect victims, and prevent trafficking by dismantling the systems that make it easier for traffickers to operate. This aligns with the “3 P Paradigm” of Prosecution – holding traffickers criminally accountable and increasing the risk to their operations; Protection – identifying and providing stabilization and comprehensive protection services to the persons exploited by traffickers; and Prevention – working to make it more difficult for traffickers to exploit people. For almost 20 years, this “3 P Paradigm” has provided structure and continuity to the anti-trafficking movement as it worked against all forms of human trafficking.

In the area of prevention, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor is partnering with the Coca-Cola Company and Blockchain Trust Accelerator to pilot a project to address the vulnerabilities created by contract switching – where an unscrupulous recruiter gives a migrant worker one contract in their home country and then, once the worker reaches the destination country, switches it for one with exploitative terms. Blockchain presents a possible solution – it’s a tamper-resistant digital ledger wherein any information added is permanent and verifiable.

Under the pilot, the permanent and “real” signed contracts will be time-stamped and placed on a Blockchain, thereby preventing recruiters from swapping out contracts and protecting workers. This technology-based project can improve general labor exploitation and in some cases eliminate one means of coercion that traffickers might use to exploit victims. Although to date, it is unclear if preventing contract switching will impact traffickers’ operations, we are hopeful that the use of Blockchain will measurably disrupt traffickers’ ability to use “switched contracts” as a means of coercion.

The State Department is also supporting a unique database for 12 African governments through the Southern African Development Community (or SADC). SADC is setting up national data hubs that link to a regional hub. The system includes information on victims and traffickers, modus operandi, and other related forms of exploitation. The system also has the capacity to monitor different types of survivor care and to track cases through the judicial process. To support the project, UNODC developed a training manual in English, Portuguese, and French for use in each country. We are already seeing cross-border collaboration because of this information sharing, a regional analysis report, and the development of national and regional strategies to combat human trafficking. The jury is out on whether this technological intervention will have a measurable impact on preventing or disrupting trafficking in persons, but we are hopeful that it will make a difference.

In the area of protection, technology is enhancing victim identification and referrals for services. In the United States, we have sought to modernize our national human trafficking hotline, operated by an NGO, Polaris Project, which refers tips to law enforcement, provides victims and survivors with access to critical support services anywhere in the U.S., and equips the anti-trafficking community with tools to effectively combat all forms of human trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Hotline expanded its services to receive text messages and other forms of communication and has proven itself to be a leader in the operation of victim-centered hotlines.

The U.S. State Department is also supporting IOM, which developed a Trafficking in Persons screening application, a smartphone app with 6 language interfaces to enable frontline actors in Indonesia to conduct a preliminary identification of potential victims in the fishing sector. The app asks simple yes-and-no screening questions using both text and audio narration in the various languages to help the screener determine if trafficking indicators are present. Once officially approved, the app will be deployed to water police, marine investigators, and navy officers.

During the course of this conference others will share updates about exciting tech tools, such as those that strengthen identification of victims through pattern and facial recognition to detect the sex trafficking of minors online and to compare pictures in escort ads against photos of missing children.

In the area of prosecution and trafficker accountability, technology plays a critical role. Once authorities identify a trafficker or a trafficking victim, there are all sorts of tech-based interventions available. Law enforcement can search the trafficker’s computer, mobile phone record, and banking information. Search warrants and subpoenas of this type of information can expose how the illegal trafficking scheme operates and may lead to co-conspirators, additional current victims, and former victims who can corroborate the current victims account. It might also lead to the identification of other traffickers and generate new cases. Technological tools aid a thorough financial investigation.

While traffickers use social media to recruit and groom victims, law enforcement can use search warrant returns from social media providers to help sequence a survivor’s story. I have worked certain cases with survivors who, due to trauma, had difficulty remembering the order of events in their exploitation. The electronic record, however, reveals the date of the first messaging, when they became “friends,” geographical locations, the content of messages, the victim’s interaction with others throughout the trafficking crime. The social media history can become a helpful frame for the investigative interview. The material also serves to strengthen cases because the judge or jury does not have to solely rely on the victim’s testimony. Corroborative evidence strengthens cases, reducing the dependency on victim testimony alone, and mutes aspects of the defense attorney’s cross-examination.

Social media history can also provide evidence regarding the type of coercion a trafficker uses. For instance, social media may reveal that a victim communicated with his or her community frequently before meeting the trafficker and after being coerced the level of communication noticeably decreased.

This is strong evidence of isolation as a means of coercion. Posted photos are also helpful evidence, as is the metadata connected to each photograph. Traffickers who use social media as part of their scheme do so at their own risk due to the electronic history they leave behind. This explains their shift to social media platforms that do not leave a trace like Snapchat, WhatsApp, live streaming, and others.

There are many tech applications related to data mining, mapping, and advanced analytics that governments, international organizations, and the private sector can use to track and share information in a time-sensitive way to strengthen trafficking investigations.

Legal tools may also be required to keep up with technology. Last year in the United States, our Congress passed the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” to fight online sex trafficking and make it easier for survivors to bring civil suits against internet platforms that knowingly facilitate human trafficking crimes.

Things to Consider

There is no doubt that technology’s connection to human trafficking will only increase in the future. That is why the work before you over the next two days is so important.

Let me suggest five ideas for you to consider during the each session.

1. Need before Solution

First, let me encourage you to begin with clearly identifying the need. Far too often someone comes up with a concept they have seen be effective in a different context. Then, filled with passion to stop trafficking, they bring this new tool to the anti-trafficking field in hopes it might be useful. They have a solution in search of a problem. The opposite path is more likely to generate success. Begin with a clearly stated need and then search for a solution through the tech community. This requires asking the people on the front lines what their specific needs are – what pain points are they experiencing. These should be open-ended questions and not sales pitches.

In one country I met with the lead person for counter-trafficking enforcement. We talked for hours about the challenges, successes, and failures that he had seen. I noticed that a few years before my visit, a well-respected group received a significant grant to build a case management database for this country. When I asked my new friend if I could see it and whether it was helping him do his job, he laughed and dismissively shook his head. He then pointed to a dusty stack of boxes, paper, and computers in the corner of his office. The case management database was over there . . . and he told me that they never used it. He said it was useless to him because it wasn’t designed around what he needed. Then he turned his laptop around, showing me the screen, and told me that he tracks everything he can on a simple spreadsheet.

I am sure the designers of the case management database were smart and hard working. The intentions of the grant were good. The goal was noble. Yet, using any metric, this project failed.

The outcome might have been different if they started with the question, “What do you need?” And then built a system around the answer. In my friend’s case, he didn’t think he needed a big system. He would have preferred that money be used to add a social worker to serve as a victim-witness coordinator for his unit. Our innovations will be more successful if we start with a need.

2. Understand the Tech Context

Second, I also encourage you to consider the tech context ~ asking, “What is the technological infrastructure of the area where people will use the tech intervention?” Providing tools premised on consistent internet access or electricity would not make sense where there is intermittent electricity or limited access to the Internet. No matter how impressive the system is, the people working on the ground cannot reliably log on.

Building an interactive mobile phone app to inform possible victims of their rights or to gather information about possible cases may be effective if the targeted group typically has smart phones and data plans. But if the targeted group does not typically have mobile phones or they cannot afford data plans, the impressively constructed app will never have an impact.

Giving transportation technology, like cars, to social workers or investigators will not have much impact if they do not also have money to purchase fuel or spare parts to make repairs. I know of many countries where vehicles provided to anti-trafficking efforts sit parked and unused. Understanding the context in which the end users of your technologies operate can positively impact your work.

3. Avoid Overstatements

Third, avoid overstatements. Technological overpromises do the field harm. It is easy to understand how these overpromises come about. We have conditioned people to expect exaggerated technological tools through TV law and order dramatizations and movies that show cases being solved with the touch of a button. We all want instant results. And the trafficking space provides a technologist a compelling “use case” that helps sell an idea.

I have met with many people who tell me by crunching big financial data we can identify trafficking cases. Then when we dig into the details and we learn that by following patterns we can identify where commercial sex transactions might be happening. For instance, when there are a large number of cash withdrawals made inside massage parlors late at night, they can predict the massage parlor is a front business selling commercial sex. While these transactions may be red flag indicators, they do not identify a human trafficking case, where traffickers are coercing people to engage in commercial sex. It might identify a good place to conduct an investigation, but if we asked the local police we would learn that they already knew the massage parlor was selling sex. In this case, big data used a complicated algorithm to tell the local police what they already knew. In some cases, claims of being able to identify trafficking cases were overstatements. These can cause some to become cynical and less interested in continuing to imagine how this technology, with further innovations, might go to the next level.

Likewise, we can use powerful systems to map migration networks or identify how different industries prone to trafficking operate. These can be helpful reference tools to understand the broader context.

If we overpromise the results these mapping efforts can produce, by claiming they will identify victims, we lose credibility. The tools can be used to help us focus where we should conduct trafficking screenings or where criminal investigations might be more successful. Those themselves are meaningful additions to the fight. The bottom line is: what is true in other domains is true in the tech space: there is no silver bullet to ending modern slavery.

4. Keep it Simple

Fourth, keep it simple. Complexity often creates confusion, and many of the most effective tech interventions are simple. The fewer fields in a database, the more likely people on the ground will fill it out. That may mean not collecting all the data international organizations and researchers would like, but the likelihood of people using the system increases. Consider if “big data” is the answer or if “small data” or something simple might also do the job. Simplicity will help maximize adoption and implementation of each new technology.

5. Consider Measurement

Finally, we should consider measurement. In each new technological intervention, we should prioritize from the very beginning how we will measure its direct impact on trafficking in persons. It has been said, “We measure what we value, and we value what we measure.” This requires clarity about what impact each intervention will have. It also requires the honesty to admit that not all interventions will be equally helpful, even though they might all have been well intended.

Technology’s Limitations

It is worth noting some of technology’s limitations in this fight. There may not be a tech solution for every challenge we face. Traffickers do not always use technology in their illicit operations. Many are exploiting their own relatives or village kin rather than combing social networks that span the globe. They operate the brick kilns, rice mills, fishing operations, or brothels using only cash and in-person coercion.

Potential tech-based interventions to combat trafficking will reach only a subset of the trafficking cases around the world. In these situations, many of the victims, service providers, and law enforcement also have little access to stable electrical grids or technological innovations. This does not suggest that we should not keep trying to innovate. Instead, it argues that we must also advance non-tech based innovations alongside the development of new technologies.

We should also admit that there is no fast forward button, no magic tech wand we can wave to make everything easier. While technology can advance our goals, it is not an infallible or universal remedy. There is not an algorithm or app that is going to stop trafficking, but there are tech tools that can help people do their jobs more effectively, arrest more traffickers, and serve more survivors. The reality is that it is the slow, grinding, day-in and day-out work that makes a difference, and we need focused technologies that will help governments and stakeholders take these basic steps.

This Alliance meeting holds a lot of promise with such a diverse group of experts. Your robust agenda is impressive and tracks with the “3 P Paradigm.” Moving forward, I encourage you to further engage survivor leaders in your work. At last year’s Alliance conference, Flor Molina, a Member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, spoke about the role survivors can play in an inclusive partnership to combat human trafficking. Survivors can provide a unique and informative perspective on various technological interventions, the storage of private information, and thoughtful ways to communicate impact. I look forward to learning about the results of this year’s meeting.

History & Hope

Finally, I want to close my time with you with an argument for hope that is steeped in history. This is a fantastic time to be advancing the use of technology in our common work to stop traffickers, protect victims, and prevent this crime.

For almost all of recorded history some form of human trafficking has existed.
• It has been legally protected, democratically approved, religiously endorsed, and culturally accepted.
• For almost 4,000 years of recorded history very little changed.
• Then about 220 years ago things began to change.
• One by one countries began to outlaw the slave trade and then human trafficking.
• Now every country in the world has some sort of law that bans human trafficking.

For the first time in history we have a grand consensus. Exploitation is no longer legally protected, and religious leaders from all the major faiths have come together to say their sacred texts do not support human trafficking. Never before have we had so much information and understanding about how traffickers operate around the world and how their crime affects individuals and communities.

• This is a massive historic hinge – and the door of freedom is poised to swing wide.
• The question for us in this generation is whether we will be the ones to make sure that governments deliver the parchment protections of law to the victims in need.
• We are going to need partners in this effort. No one person, one group, or one intervention will win the day. We must collaborate for a specific purpose.
• We know traffickers will continue to use technology to commit their crimes and evade detection. We must also be armed with technology. We must have the imagination to use existing technologies in new ways and innovate new technologies to meet existing needs.
• I am happy to join you as we advance our common goal of sweeping human trafficking into the dustbin of history.

Many thanks for your time, talent, and commitment to ending human trafficking.