Sex Trafficking in the Digital Age

 

Human Sex Trafficking: A Global Epidemic[1]

 

In recent years, the advancement of technology has permitted a more efficient way of life in many aspects. The prevalent influence of the internet has fostered international communication networks as well as a complex web of interdependence among nation-states; such expansion has facilitated ease of communication, an exchange of knowledge and ultimately, new avenues for human enhancement. However, with these developments comes the manifestation of novel digital crimes. Formerly, crimes such as theft, violence, and illegal trafficking were conducted physically. Now, the internet has become an additional medium, an intersection that melds tools of technological efficiency with continually evolving crimes. One crime that has adapted to the changing circumstances with startling proficiency is the sex trafficking industry. As the third- largest transnational crime, human trafficking has permeated societies at multiple levels and fully exploited the internet as a means of acquiring new victims. A multi-billion dollar industry, human trafficking transcends both national and international borders, “-creating victims without discriminating against race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, or socioeconomic status; and it often occurs unnoticed and undetected”.[2] And unlike historical human trafficking practices, modern forms of this crime have embroiled a number of key characters aside from the conventional buyer, seller, and victim. The digitized form of forced sexual bondage has presently adopted the intangible nature of the Internet and once paired with the inherent lack of technological governance, presents a significant obstacle to ending the sex trafficking trade.

 

According to the United Nations, human trafficking is characterized by three primary elements: the act, the means, and the purpose, which delineate the precise process of the crime itself. The act, refers to the “recruitment, transportation, harboring or receipt of persons”; the means, cites the method used to secure victims (whether by coercion, force, abduction, fraud, etc.) and finally, the purpose encompasses why such egregious actions are carried out.[3] The purpose tends to vary transnationally, but a prominent objective remains that of sexual exploitation. Increasingly, women and children are coerced or forcefully taken from “-developing countries and from vulnerable parts of society in developed countries...lured by promises of decent employment…”.[4] Sex trafficking is widely regarded as a form of modern-day slavery and is distinguished from other types of trafficking by the performance of commercial sex or work which victimizes both adults and children alike.[5] Formerly, sex trafficking was considered widely restricted to underdeveloped nations because of the easy exploitation of individuals in poverty. However, given the recent growth in global communications and technological advancement, sex trafficking has taken on entirely distinct forms that permeate both developed and developing countries.

 

 

Through the use of the Internet and social media, traffickers are not only able to advertise victims to their clientele bases but also expand their targets to increasingly younger individuals. Traffickers find that the internet encapsulates a formidable fusion of particularly attractive characteristics: the ability to reach a broad audience (instantaneously), the ability to avoid strict monitoring, and capability in which ambiguous information may be presented.[6] The World Bank reports that an estimated 49.7% of the world population currently utilizes the internet in some capacity.[7] In relation to

 

recruitment, the exponential growth of internet users demonstrates a dangerously exploitative nature on behalf of the traffickers as they saturate online platforms occupied by new victims. Methods of ensnaring unsuspecting victims into the monopolistic industry of involuntary slavery rarely resemble the fictitious Hollywood movie scenes of hostages and kidnapping plots. Rather, victims may become romantically involved with someone and then subsequently groomed or manipulated into prostitution, or lured on the pretense of a job.[8]  A popularly used approach by traffickers is “expressing love and admiration of the victim…”[9] then consequently followed by alluring job offers (refer to photo below[10]). Once the victim is united with the trafficker, various techniques are used to prevent communication with family or friends, often under penalty of violence or even death.[11] The psychological process of grooming a victim frequently entails the formation of fabricated trust. Blinded by the seemingly perfect significant other, the trafficker will actively pursue a supposed exclusive relationship with the victim and from there, progress to isolation from settings and people of familiarity. The intertwined nature of the grooming process and personal identity ultimately displays key vulnerabilities that traffickers are all too willing to capitalize upon. According to the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking report, a fourteen-year-old girl had accepted a “friend request” from a stranger that she did not know, developed a friendly relationship with the man and eventually met in person. Following several occasions, the girl was abducted, drugged, raped and held captive as a sex slave for the next four years of her life[12]. The process of deception is overlaid with the efficient complexity of internet anonymity features, fraudulent accounts, and encrypted messaging rooms. As such, the use of the internet in the process of recruitment into sex trafficking rings is often difficult for law enforcement to navigate.

 

Once trapped into involuntary sexual slavery, victims undergo a vicious cycle of force and feigned affection in order to meticulously reshape their psychological perceptions of the situation that they are in. Individuals can find themselves manipulated from weeks to years as traffickers or pimps dictate their lives via physical and technological means. Traffickers might use violent ploys such as rape, battering, torture, forced sexual acts, denial of food/medical aid, and more; but what is particularly prominent are the psychological elements of cementing a victim into the illicit sex trade. Traffickers treat their victims as little more than commodities, regarding them as less than human and over time, this “-fosters a sense of lost identity for victims and a sense of dependency upon their traffickers.”[13] Additionally, victims are always under surveillance; whether it be through GPS tracking on cellular devices, dropping in on the victim’s residence unannounced, or simply living with the victim so that they are unable to have any time alone, sex traffickers enforce a condition of dependency that reduces the odds of being apprehended. Here, the internet once again comes into play, as victims are forced to use their own social media accounts to solicit potential clients. The sale of sexual services over popular social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram largely remain undetected. The advertisements are typically concealed under some semblance of modeling or escort services with “-thinly veiled captions...tacked under explicit photos or live-streams of both children and adults.[14] Upon unwillingly selling their bodies, victims are also filmed in the act as a supplementary measure to guarantee little prospect of freedom.

 

A recent case that made headlines in March 2020 across the world was a South Korean digital sex trafficking case of the ‘Nth Room’. A multilayered, sex ring run by blackmail, the case triggered national and worldwide uproar over the use of digitally encrypted chat rooms and exploitation of over 70 victims. The ringleader, 24- year-old Cho Joo-Bin was accused of luring women through advertisements for high-paying jobs, obtaining personal information, and subsequently forcing them to send sexual images of themselves.[15] As the victims in the cases found themselves further embroiled into the sex trafficking scheme, they were forced to engage in increasingly horrific sexual acts to cater to Cho’s wide base of clients. Cho operated under the alias of “Baksa” and through the messaging app ‘Telegram’. The multiple chat rooms were referred to as the “1st room” up to the “8th room”; individuals would pay increasing amounts of cryptocurrency (up to 1.5m won or 1,500USD)[16] to access different levels of rooms where the “8th room” possessed the most appalling videos and images including victims carving the word ‘slave’ into their skin, eating feces, and even being raped by assigned people.[17] It was suspected that more than 10,000 people were members of the “Nth room” and claims of several thousand victims though the precise statistics remain unknown. However, of the known victims, most were women along with 16 identified minors. While South Korean authorities have made efforts to identify and arrest all participants of the chatrooms, the additional layer of technology has introduced various complications. Encrypted applications such as Telegram were chosen as the central form of illicit sexual videos/images because they were not only equipped with foreign servers but also “-accepted bitcoin in order to cover users’ tracks. They could also be easily deleted and reformed on a regular basis…”[18] in order to avoid contact with law enforcement. The “Nth Room” case serves as a somber reminder of the evolution of sex trafficking through digital channels.

 

While encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and Discord serve as the basis of communications for sex trafficking rings operating digitally, the initial recruitment of victims still spans across multiple websites. According to the Polaris Project, as online sex marketplaces face increasing scrutiny, traffickers have gradually moved to less obvious, less controversial mainstream media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Kik, etc.[19] Moreover, as stated prior, in accordance to the grooming process, traffickers also utilize online dating applications such as Tinder and

 

OKCupid in an effort to lure (primarily) young women into the sale of forced sexual service. But perhaps the most imperative concern is the disconnect between legislation and digital sex trafficking. One of the reasons why sex trafficking as been permitted to prosper simultaneously with technological advancements is in part, due to the deregulated status of the Internet. Not only has the Internet transformed the physical aspects of sex trafficking into an abstraction (ie. services that are paid for, are provided solely through the Internet like the “Nth Room”), it has also become the main mechanism facilitating illicit online transactions with little repercussion. In the United States and other Western cultures, the notion of freedom of speech remains widely embedded in public opinion. The proposition of additional digital regulation would not only result in unpopular public opinion but among governments as well. As such, tackling the issue of digital sex trafficking entails a more widespread discussion regarding Internet privacy and digital rights.                  

 

Forced sexual servitude does not just affect a single individual, community, or country; given its ubiquitous nature as a result of readily accessible online platforms, digital sex trafficking is challenging global leaders to intervene in a cohesive manner. As an international concern, the digital sale of forced sexually explicit images and videos warrants heightened vigilance on multiple fronts. The Internet has now “-created fluidity between the geographic locations of traffickers [and permit them] to do business online, anywhere in the world, without ever stepping foot into the host country.”[20] The dispersion of digital sex trafficking deepens the already present divide between the reaches of law enforcement and the technological landscape that is the Internet. If digital sex trafficking is to be defeated, nations must begin at the domestic level; if world leaders such as the United States, France, Canada, China, Russia, and other large governing bodies take the steps to implement nationwide online anti-trafficking laws, the same conversation could eventually be brought forth to the international community. This is not to say that freedom of speech should be restricted, but rather the formation of a contemporary force established for the sole purpose of melding the physical dynamic of law enforcement into the digital landscape.

 

The CTG Crime Team will continue to monitor the evolution of digital sex trafficking and adaptive transnational criminal organizations. As Internet users increase exponentially, CTG Crime Team recommends additional caution when navigating social media platforms and utilizing provided privacy features. Reducing avenues where traffickers are able to contact by digital means is a priority of CTG Crime Team’s surveillance and threat hunting. For additional crimes in the cyber realm, CTG’s Crime Team will work alongside CI/CYBER Team in order to detect and deter potential criminal threats.

________________________________________________________________________________________

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] “Human Sex Trafficking: A Global Epidemic” by University of New England (2015)

[2] Sona Movsisyan, Human Trafficking in a Digital Age: Who Should Be Held Accountable?, 27 Mich. St. Int'l L. Rev. 539 (2019), https://digitalcommons.law.msu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1258&context=ilr

[3] “What Is Human Trafficking?” United Nations : Office on Drugs and Crime, www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html.

[4] “Types of Human Trafficking.” INTERPOL, www.interpol.int/en/Crimes/Human-trafficking/Types-of-human-trafficking.

[5] “Sex Trafficking|Sexual Violence|Violence Prevention|Injury Center|CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 Jan. 2020, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/trafficking.html. 

[6] Tidwell, Ruby, "Caught in the Web: The Importance of Ethical Computing Illustrated via an Exploration of the Online Recruitment of Women and Girls into Sex Trafficking" (2016). Honors Senior Theses/Projects. 111.

https://digitalcommons.wou.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1110&context=honors_theses.

[7] “Individuals Using the Internet (% of Population).” The World Bank, The World Bank, 2017, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/it.net.user.zs?end=2018&start=1960&view=chart.

[8] Sona Movsisyan, Human Trafficking in a Digital Age: Who Should Be Held Accountable?, 27 Mich. St. Int'l L. Rev. 539 (2019), https://digitalcommons.law.msu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1258&context=ilr

[9] Dixon, Herbert B. “Human Trafficking and the Internet* (*and Other Technologies, Too).” Human Trafficking and the Internet* (*and Other Technologies, Too), American Bar Association, 1 Jan. 2013, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/judicial/publications/judges_journal/2013/winter/human_trafficking_and_internet_and_other_technologies_too/.

[10] “Top Recruitment Tactics of Sex Traffickers”, Blackburn Center, 17 December 2019

[11] Id.

[12] Tidwell, Ruby, "Caught in the Web: The Importance of Ethical Computing Illustrated via an Exploration of the Online Recruitment of Women and Girls into Sex Trafficking" (2016). Honors Senior Theses/Projects. 111.

https://digitalcommons.wou.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1110&context=honors_theses.

[13] Withers, Mellissa. “Psychological Tactics Used by Human Traffickers.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 19 Oct. 2016,https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/modern-day-slavery/201610/psychological-tactics-used-human-traffickers.

[14] “On-Ramps, Intersections, and Exit Routes: A Roadmap for Systems and Industries to Prevent and Disrupt Human Trafficking.” Polaris Project, Polaris Project, 1 July 2018, https://polarisproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/A-Roadmap-for-Systems-and-Industries-to-Prevent-and-Disrupt-Human-Trafficking-Social-Media.pdf.

[15] Kim, Min Joo. “South Korea Identifies Suspected Leader of Sexual Blackmail Ring after Uproar.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 Mar. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/south-korea-identifies-suspected-leader-of-sexual-blackmail-ring-after-uproar/2020/03/25/f45f9df4-6e5f-11ea-a156-0048b62cdb51_story.html.

[16] McCurry, Justin. “Outrage in South Korea over Telegram Sexual Abuse Ring Blackmailing Women and Girls.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Mar. 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/25/outrage-in-south-korea-over-telegram-sexual-abuse-ring-blackmailing-women-and-girls.

[17] Tembe, Isha. “South Korea And Telegram's 'Nth Rooms:' The Latest In Misogynistic Culture.” The Organization for World Peace, 4 Apr. 2020, https://theowp.org/south-korea-and-telegrams-nth-rooms-the-latest-in-misogynistic-culture/.

[18] Lee, Suhyoon. “South Korea's Latest Sex Crime Scandal Is a Blackmail Ring Streaming Abuse on Telegram.” Quartz, Quartz, 24 Mar. 2020, https://qz.com/1824130/korea-shocked-by-telegram-chat-room-sexual-abuse-scandal/.

[19] “On-Ramps, Intersections, and Exit Routes: A Roadmap for Systems and Industries to Prevent and Disrupt Human Trafficking.” Polaris Project, Polaris Project, 1 July 2018, https://polarisproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/A-Roadmap-for-Systems-and-Industries-to-Prevent-and-Disrupt-Human-Trafficking-Social-Media.pdf.

[20] Verham, Zack. “The Invisibility of Digital Sex Trafficking in Public Media.” Intersect, vol. 8, no. 3, 13 July 2015, pp. 1–12., http://ojs.stanford.edu/ojs/index.php/intersect/article/view/721.

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