The Dark Relationship Between Digital Insecurity and Human Trafficking

human trafficing

Imagine this: It’s been a long day. It’s been raining all day and it’s cold. You dropped your notes for a big presentation in a puddle, rendering them completely useless.

You can’t wait to get home, to change into something more comfortable and vent the frustration you’ve been carrying all day. In an attempt to release that frustration, you post about it on social media during your lunch break, complaining about your crappy day. You get on with your day and don’t get a chance to check your Twitter account until you get home from work. You’re pleasantly surprised to find a message from someone you met through a mutual friend. . . or maybe at a bar. . . or even at the grocery store. They’re commiserating about the terrible day, offering compliments and maybe asking for a chance to cheer you up.

What you don’t know at the time, what you don’t find out until later when it’s too late, is that the person you’re dealing with might seem crazy about you but could have nefarious intentions.

Social media, while a convenient way to stay in touch and to meet people, can sometimes be an open door to predators of all kinds. Human trafficking is one such threat that could be lurking on the other side of the keyboard.

What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking, the illegal and forceful removal and relocation of a person or people from area or country to another, all too often starts out with scenes like that, especially in the exploitative commercial sex trade. It’s commonly referred to as Romeo or finesse pimping.

People involved in this type of interaction, usually young men but sometimes young women, use psychological manipulation to gain their victim’s trust and force or coerce the victim into the commercialized sex trade or slavery.

Since 2007, the human trafficking hotline has taken in reports on 36,270 total cases. There have been 4,460 cases this year alone—a full 12 percent.

Of those cases, 3,186 were classified as being part of the commercial sex trade, though this isn’t the only branch of human trafficking. Forced labor trafficking is another branch which unfortunate victims find themselves involved in, either by deceit or coercion.

Ease of access to potential victims via technology has opened the door and changed the landscape of human trafficking with numbers of reported cases spiking in recent years. But what exactly is the link here?

Human Trafficking and Social Media Security

Traffickers use social media to communicate with and recruit people of both genders, from teens to young adults, into the commercial sex trade.

Public profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media sites are an increasingly popular way traffickers use to approach their prey. If given the chance, they can use information from the potential victim’s posts, even seemingly innocuous things, in order to learn more about the individual, thus making it easier to insert themselves into the victim’s lives.

Location-based features on social media sites and smartphones also make it easier for traffickers to gain access to their victims. By looking at location tags attached to posts from their would-be victims, traffickers can keep tabs on prospective victims, making it easier to exploit them.

Social media, apps, smartphones, and the internet have made it possible for traffickers to take some of the leg work out of recruitment as well as some of the risk. Instead of having to hang around areas where vulnerable teens might be, such as high school or college campuses, traffickers can approach their victims from the safety of their screens.

Social Apps: A New Hunting Ground for Traffickers

Different smartphone apps also make it easier for traffickers to approach their targets. Apps like Tinder, Yellow, Tagged, Snapchat, and Kik are all apps utilized by traffickers.

What makes these apps so appealing? They give an illusion of anonymity that encourages careless digital security practices.

For example, kik is a text messaging app that can be used even without a connection to cellular service, meaning that people with any iOS device, like an iPod or an iPad, as well as Android devices and computers can use the app to text each other.

Tinder, Yellow, and Tagged are apps to facilitate meeting new people. Tinder and Yellow both utilize location-based services to facilitate conversations with users who are nearby. Like Tinder, Yellow allows users to swipe left or right based on the suggestions for users in the area.

Unlike Tinder, Yellow is targeted directly toward those in a younger age group: 13- to 17-year-olds, specifically. If two people are matched together, they are given the chance to share their Snapshat profiles where they can keep chatting or send photos back and forth.

The problem here, and with Tinder, is that the app developer has no precautions in place to verify users are who they say they are and basically give out your location data to other users.

Further perplexing, to parents especially, is the fact that Snapchat can be used to share whatever photos a user wants with the option for the recipient to take a screenshot of said image. This opens the door to another type of coercion for traffickers: using images to blackmail victims into exploitative situations. To avoid embarrassment or other repercussions, whether those repercussions are real or imagined, the victim might be more likely to do as the trafficker says and put his or herself into perilous situations.

How to Protect Your Digital Presence

One way to reduce the likelihood of being approached by a human trafficker online is to make sure accounts on social media are all set to private. On Facebook, make your profile private so only friends can see pictures and posts from you and make sure posts of a personal nature are never set to “Public”. On Twitter, make your tweets protected. We’ve provided a detailed article on best practices on social media security.

On all social media sites, and in all aspects of online life, make sure to interact only with people you know personally. If interacting with someone you don’t know personally, be on the lookout for strange activity on the account. Check for recent posts and an established presence on the profile. Be wary of accounts that have been very recently created.

Turning off geolocation on your social media apps and on your computer can also help deter human traffickers.

Technology and the Fight Against Human Trafficking

While human traffickers are undoubtedly using social media as a tool to groom victims, making them more pliable for recruitment into the commercialized sex trade, there are ways to protect yourself online. There are also apps available to help in fighting human trafficking as well as ways people can use their smartphone to to stop trafficking.

Apps which can help stop human trafficking include TraffickCam, Redlight Traffic, and the STOP APP.

TraffickCam was designed with frequent travelers in mind. It allows users to upload photographs of their hotel room from different angles to a database. The pictures in the database are analyzed and compared to pictures of trafficking victims provided by police in order to locate the victims.

Redlight Traffic and the STOP APP function similarly and allow users to submit reports of strange behavior they think could be linked to human trafficking. In Redlight Traffic, users can submit reports under three categories: business, person, or vehicle, depending on the context they think trafficking is happening. Reports are shared with local authorities.

The STOP APP functions in much the same way but allows users to attach three photos and a video to their report. This information is sent to STOP THE TRAFFIK’s database.

Additional Information About Human Trafficking

There are a number of resources to learn more about the warning signs of human trafficking in your community or for people you care about. Polaris is an organization that works to educate people about human trade and liberate victims of human trafficking. Here are tips for recognizing human trafficking.

For immediate resources and support, you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline +1 (888) 373-7888 or text the Polaris BeFree Textline with “BeFree” (233733).