Blue Line

Cyber trafficking

September 30, 2021  By Brieanna Charlebois


Countering human trafficking in the digital era

On June 19, Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team’s (ALERT) Human Trafficking and Counter Exploitation unit rescued a 15-year-old girl from human traffickers at an Edmonton hotel.

The police investigation revealed she was first groomed online, which then escalated to nude photography and culminated in luring her away from her home, steering her into sex trade. The three men involved were arrested and charged with a total of 35 criminal offences.

“Perpetrators are very skilled at grooming and manipulating their victims with gifts, money and affection, but it’s all a mirage,” said ALERT Staff Sergeant Chris Hayes when asked about the arrest. “The type of men, like we saw in this case, are very skilled. They know how to approach, procure and lure young girls away from their home and family to be trafficked.”

Sadly, this is not a rare phenomenon. Although the exact number of people trafficked in Canada is unknown, there is growing evidence of widespread—and increasing rates of—international and domestic human trafficking.


Prevalence in Canada

The most recent national data, released by Statistics Canada in May, revealed there was a record-high number of human trafficking incidents reported to police in Canada in 2019, but experts say this number just “the tip of the iceberg.”

While human trafficking comes in many forms, research conducted the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking (CCEHT) revealed two overarching types of human trafficking in Canada: sex trafficking and forced labour.

“There’s all kinds of ways that exploitation occurs in regards to human trafficking,” said Julie Jones (formally Clegg), founder and CEO of Human Intelligence Services Inc. “The most important aspect of trafficking today is grooming and how it’s done. It’s all about manipulation and coercive control because, as is also common in domestic violence cases, people often don’t realize that they’re in an abusive situation until they become dependent on their abuser, are removed from their support network and can’t get out.”

A total of 511 police-reported incidents of human trafficking occurred in 2019, according to Statistics Canada—a 44 per cent increase when compared to 2018 and the highest rate reported since comparable data became available in 2009. Ontario reported the highest number of police-reported human trafficking incidents (representing 62 per cent of Canadian HT cases in 2019), while Nova Scotia reported the highest rate per capita (almost double the national rate for this crime and representing 10 per cent of all cases). Though these numbers are significant, experts say human trafficking a crime that is often underreported. The numbers are likely much higher.

“Human trafficking involves the recruitment, transportation or harbouring of persons for the purpose of exploitation, typically sexual exploitation or forced labour.” – Public Safety Canada

Economics of human trafficking

Human trafficking corridors are one significant component whereby traffickers control the movements of the person they’re exploiting. The CCEHT defined these corridors as “strips of land or transportation routes that include two or more major cities, used by traffickers to move individuals between sites of commercial exploitation.”

“Constant movement between cities and provinces keeps victims of human trafficking confused, isolated and dependent on their traffickers,” the Centre noted in the first-ever study of human trafficking transportation corridors in the country.

The routes—identified by law enforcement, frontline service delivery agencies and the media—allow traffickers to exert control and ensure victims have limited opportunities to escape. Indigenous women and girls, newcomers to Canada, Black and racialized women, and those living in poverty are particularly at-risk of being trafficked. It’s also a crime commonly tied to organized crime networks. It’s lucrative and, in comparison to other crimes, is relatively low risk as it’s often difficult to prove within the justice system.

“It’s a very lucrative business for traffickers,” said Shirley Cuillierrier, special adviser to combat human trafficking to the Minister of Public Safety. “A drug trafficker, for example, can only sell a substance once but they can sell a human many times. A main reason they travel from province to province is often to avoid identification by police.”

While corridors are a major concern for law enforcement, they are only one piece of the puzzle. Not all trafficked persons are physically moved and, in the current digital age, the internet poses a larger challenge for police.

In North America, most trafficking occurs within domestic borders. Many experts have concluded that border closures in response to COVID-19 did not curb trafficking rates. Rather, it made it even more difficult for victims escape situations of human trafficking and access the supports they need.

“It’s a crime that is very misunderstood. People often don’t realize human trafficking is predominantly conducted online,” said Jones. “There doesn’t have to be movement for trafficking to occur. People can be trafficked and still be going about their everyday life.”

The overlap between cybercrime and human trafficking thrived during the pandemic. From finding and grooming vulnerable people via social media apps to promoting and soliciting their bodies on the dark web or through encrypted channels, the vast migration online in March 2020 created new opportunities for organized criminals and lone traffickers alike.

“As people moved online in unprecedented levels, trafficking became a crime of opportunity. Increased online traffic created opportunity for fraudsters and scammers, but also for predators,” said Matt Richardson, director of intelligence and investigations for the Anti-Human Trafficking Intelligence Initiative (ATII), a non-profit that works in tandem with police offering various tools and intelligence-sharing to fight trafficking.

Social media, cryptocurrency & the dark web

As technology continues to evolve, experts are calling for more education for law enforcement on the role of social media, the dark web, encryption and cryptocurrency in human trafficking practices, specifically regarding how the crime is facilitated and what evidence is needed to prosecute trafficking offenses.

This starts with understanding the types of websites:

  1. Surface web: areas of the internet accessible by search engines. It is available to the general public using standard search engines and can be accessed using standard web browsers that do not require any special configuration (such as Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Google Chrome); comprises between two and 10 per cent of online data.
  2. Deep web: areas of the internet that are accessible through a database (which may be accessible through search engines). Many deep websites consist of data and content stored in databases that support services we use every day (such as social media or banking websites); comprises about 90 per cent of online data.
  3. Dark web: areas of the internet that cannot be accessed through regular search engines or deep websites; relies on connections between trusted peers and requires specialized software, tools or equipment to access. Two popular tools for this are Tor and I2P, commonly used to provide user anonymity. Once logged into Tor or I2P the most direct way to find pages on the dark web is to receive a link to the page from another user; comprises of 0.01 per cent of the internet.

Social media (and other networking technologies) provide traffickers the ability to identify, connect and target vulnerable youth. They are able to manipulate potential victims in real-time through virtual communication or by requesting and sharing images. Ultimately, perpetrators have the ability to exert control without being physically present in their victim’s lives.

“In the real world, our instincts protect us and our body language reflects that, but because we are sensory deprived online, these reflects are nullified,” said Richardson. “The benefit for perpetrators is the internet is low risk because it’s somewhat anonymous and requires a low investment of time. It allows for more access and opportunity because relationship-building is quick and easy online. They can target hundreds of people at once.”

Most grooming occurs through social media apps, on gaming sites or through dating sites. Cryptocurrency exchanges, encrypted apps and the dark web are the most common places traffickers connect and facilitate crime. In response to this, some technology companies are working to aid police in stopping crimes like human trafficking and the sharing of Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM). For example, in August, Apple announced their plan to deploy their newly developed ‘NeuralHash technology’, which would have scanned U.S.-based users’ iPhones for CSAM. But, in early September, the company decided to delay the roll out amid widespread criticism from privacy groups who argued it set a “dangerous precedent.”

“Based on feedback from customers, advocacy groups, researchers and others, we have decided to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features,” the company said in a statement on Sept. 3.

While it is a complex issue with many opinions, Jones, a privacy advocate and human trafficking expert/investigator, said finding a “happy medium” between companies and privacy advocates is vital. The issue now, she said, is big corporations have lost public trust.

“The reality is the technology that is being used to create propagate and fuel child sexual abuse is the same technology we can use to stop it,” she said. “We just have to be more creative and innovative in order to find balance between privacy and security, and protection of children.”

Combating a growing issue

Canada is actively working to combat the issue on both national and provincial levels. Law enforcement agencies, justice partners, non-profit organizations and various community groups across the country are actively working collaboratively to improve awareness and early identification of trafficking to protect and support survivors of trafficking, and investigate and prosecute trafficking offences. The primary focus is now on interagency networking, collaboration and intelligence sharing as well as conducting multi-jurisdictional investigations and prosecutions.

“Human trafficking in Canada is getting worse, not better.” – Shirley Cuillierrier, special adviser to the Minister of Public Safety to combat human trafficking

In September 2019, the federal government introduced its $75 million National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking . The national strategy builds on the efforts of Canada’s Strategy to Prevent and Address Gender-Based Violence and includes the implementation of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ Calls for Justice. To support these goals, the Minister of Public Safety appointed a special advisor on human trafficking: retired RCMP Assistant Commissioner and member of the Mohawks of Kanesatake Shirley Cuillierrier.

Its strategy also dedicating funding for the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline, a multi-lingual, 24/7 service that connects callers to supports and services, which launched in May 2019. During its first year in service, 2,390 substantive signals to the service were made, including calls, emails, web chats and web forms, and successfully identified 415 cases of human trafficking.

The country is taking a victim-centric approach to the issue. Building on the internationally-recognized pillars of prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership, Canada is also the first country to incorporate a new pillar of ‘empowerment’ in an effort to enhance supports and services for victims affected by this crime.

“I think language is important,” Cuillierrier said. “By adding that pillar, we are sending a very loud and clear message to survivors that we’re going to value their experience, and give them a voice and a seat at the table.”

Individual provinces have also dedicated funding and allocated resources to combat the issue of human trafficking within their borders. For example, in June, the Ontario government announced the passing of new legislation and made amendments to existing legislation to build upon the province’s $307 million Anti-Human Trafficking Strategy. Then, in July, the Ontario Minister of Education mandated every school board to have a human trafficking policy plan and procedure in place by January 2022. Similarly, in June, Gudie Hutchings, parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development, announced $2.8 million to support the following eight organizations that prevent human trafficking, increase awareness and provide support to at-risk populations human trafficking in British Columbia. Some provinces have also instated integrated law enforcement teams to combat human trafficking. One such example is Alberta’s ALERT team, which also employs a Safety Network Coordinator, a survivor with lived experience to aid in investigations through a victim-centric approach.

“Every piece and every voice helps. We need law enforcement to be able to recognize online and offline signs and be comfortable speaking with victims and survivors. There’s definitely room for growth, but we are actively working on it,” said Richardson. “There’s no shortage of officers with the desire to know and do more in the fight against trafficking and I see a lot of positive things coming from the governments. The will is there and that’s all we really need.”

What’s next?

In the majority of trafficking situations, victims are forced into criminal situations—prostitution, drug trafficking, etc.—but Jones is urging Canadians to challenge pre-existing stigmas and to avoid treating exploited people like criminals. She is advocating for more widespread situation consciousness from police.

“We criminalize individuals who have been forced into criminal behavior, which means the human trafficking often doesn’t even get brought to light,” said Jones. “Police must be vigilant and look beyond the obvious charges because human trafficking is growing exponentially but it’s flying under the radar disguised as lesser crimes.”

This can be done by examining events leading up to the criminal activity, looking at an individual’s living conditions, deciphering how individuals were potentially recruited and how they were potentially managed or controlled by another party.

“Human trafficking in Canada is getting worse, not better,” added Cuillierrier. “It’s time to rethink our strategy in terms of who we go after to tackle this issue.”

To do so effectively, interagency networking and collaboration, as well as intelligence and multi-jurisdictional information sharing is crutial.

“Information sharing is essential in human trafficking cases because of the nature of the crime,” said Jones. “It’s contingent on police to know the transit routes in their jurisdiction, understand how people are trafficked and foster open-communication with other agencies.”

The good news, she said, is Canada is moving in the right direction.

“We’re making every effort to stop to prevent and prosecute human trafficking, but there still needs to be a lot more awareness, more education, better legislation and better law enforcement training around human trafficking,” Jones concluded. “We’re on our way. We’re just not there yet.”

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