By Kotie Geldenhuys
We often stand amazed at what can be found on the Internet and it is no surprise that the Internet is used as a tool to commit crime. Technology gives traditional forms of crime, especially organised crime, a new dimension. Money laundering, drug sales, distribution of child abuse material and prostitution have evolved as a result of technological developments. The Internet also offers human traffickers unprecedented opportunities, which they have been quick to exploit. They have found new ways of marketing and delivering women and children into appalling conditions of sexual exploitation and modern day slavery.
While the rapid diffusion of digital technology has provided significant benefits to society, it also created new channels and opportunities for exploitation. Latonero et al (2012) argue that the business of human trafficking is increasingly occurring online and via cellphones. The rise of mobile technology has fundamentally transformed the landscape of human trafficking. Its ability to facilitate real-time communication and coordination, unbound by physical location, is exploited by traffickers to extend the reach of their illicit activities. Traffickers are able to recruit, advertise, organise and communicate primarily, or even exclusively, via cellphone, effectively streamlining their activities and expanding their criminal networks. However, the same technologies that are being used for trafficking can become a powerful tool to combat trafficking.
What is technology-facilitated trafficking?
Latonero et al (2012) explain that technology-facilitated trafficking refers to the social and technical ecosystem wherein individuals use information and communication technologies to engage in human trafficking and related behaviour. Digital and network technologies impact visibility, coordination, transaction, exchange and organisation. These technologies can therefore impact various aspects of trafficking, from grooming, recruitment and control of victims to advertising, movement and financial transactions. An understanding of how technology is facilitating human trafficking is a crucial component for counter-trafficking efforts in the 21st century.
Using the Internet as a tool to recruit victims
In the past, printed advertisements for employment, marriage, dating, etc were a well-known way of recruiting victims. These days, with the expansion of new technologies, these advertisements have also moved to the Internet. Potential victims no longer need to buy newspapers, while traffickers no longer have to pay for advertising space in the media.
Sykiotou (2007) explains that criminals use the Internet in exactly the same way as legal businesses, with the aim to advertise and to attract clients. The Internet is a commercial tool which is used to promote and sell products and services of all kinds. Traffickers lure victims with promising advertisements for jobs on general advertisement sites, through au pair agencies, international marriage agencies or dating sites. In addition to adverts, traffickers also directly approach victims in chat rooms or on mainstream social media (Europol, 2014). Internet chat sites are often used to "befriend" potential victims and for younger people, the danger of falling into the traffickers' clutches has substantially increased.
For the past decade, human trafficking facilitated through the Internet has gained momentum. In 2008, the UNODC already mentioned that in Denmark, law enforcement authorities noted suspicious advertisements for nannies, waitresses and dancers on websites in Latvia and Lithuania. The traffickers used Internet sites to post advertisements for jobs in Western Europe. An anti-trafficking group in Poland reports that 30% of its clients (trafficked women) were recruited through the Internet (UNODC, 2008). Latonero et al (2012) also refer to 140 closed trafficking cases from across the USA which were examined. Of these cases, 85% were sex trafficking cases and in 27% of cases, perpetrators used the Internet as a trafficking tool.
Dixon (2013) argues that some trafficking cases start with the offender contacting the potential victims on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. The offender gains the potential victim's trust by expressing love and admiration for the victim, promising to make the victim a star and providing a ticket to a new location away from the victim's home. In July 2017, a 24-year-old woman from the Free State returned safely to South Africa after she had fallen victim to human trafficking.