Cellebrite And The Exodus Road Team Up To Fight Human Trafficking
July 30, 2021 marks the United Nations’ “World Day Against Trafficking in Persons”—a day dedicated to ending human trafficking, a horrific crime that affects more than 40 million people worldwide. Data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) show that between 2003 and 2018, 225,000 trafficking victims were identified worldwide, including women, children and men – half of whom were trafficked for sexual exploitation, and 38% for forced labor. In 2018 alone, some 50,000 human trafficking victims were reported by 148 countries, with women being the most exploited population (46%) alongside girls (19%) and one in three identified victims is a child.
The UN reports that the proportion of children among the victims has tripled, while the proportion of boys has increased fivefold over the 15 years reported. The UN notes that although in most countries there are laws regarding human trafficking, the phenomenon is far from disappearing.
Human trafficking is big business (see sidebar for details) and while organized crime syndicates have a stranglehold on international trafficking operations, a great deal of trafficking and exploitation is being done locally by hometown gangs and profiteers.
The COVID crisis didn’t help. The US State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report cites a survey by the Office of Security and Co-operation in Europe’s OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and UN Women as saying, “that almost 70 percent of trafficking survivors from 35 countries reported that their financial well-being was heavily impacted by COVID-19, and more than two-thirds attributed a decline in their mental health to government-imposed lockdowns triggering memories of exploitative situations.”
The U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported a 98.66 percent increase in online enticement reports between January and September 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, and reports to their CyberTipline doubled to 1.6 million.
What’s this worth in terms of dollars? The Trafficking in America Task Force states that according to the International Labor Organization (ILO):
- “Forced labor in the private economy generates US $150 billion in illegal profits per year, about three times more than previously estimated.
- 2/3 of the estimated total of US $150 billion, or US $99 billion, came from commercial sexual exploitation, while another US$ 51 billion resulted from forced economic exploitation, including domestic work, agriculture, and other economic activities.”
While law enforcement agencies worldwide at both the national and local level are desperately trying to fight trafficking and child exploitation crimes (Seattle PDs ICAC unit is but one example here in the US), non-profit organizations are playing a key role as well. One group that is making huge strides to stop trafficking in Thailand, India, the Philippines, and Latin America is The Exodus Road.
Making a Difference—One Rescue at a Time
Co-founded by Matt and Laura Parker in January of 2012, The Exodus Road (TER) was born out of injustices the couple saw happening when they moved their family to Thailand in 2010 and were directing a children’s home for hill-tribe girls in rural Northern Thailand. Seeing how these marginalized girls were being taken advantage of. Matt began working with NGOs fighting traffickers and eventually worked with the Thai police, going undercover wearing hidden body cameras and posing as a “John” interested in sex or sale to bust perpetrators.
Matt took his mission to the next level in 2012, when he (now CEO) and Laura (now President) launched TER with the mission to help law enforcement stop traffickers who use force, fraud, or coercion to control victims for the purpose of utilizing them for forced labor or sexual services against their will.
As Matt explained, TER does not actually lead rescue operations or arrest traffickers themselves. TER helps supply the police with critical evidence so they can move forward with warrants. Overall TER provides support for agencies and victims in three key areas:
Training: TER’s TraffickWatch Academy program educates law enforcement, NGO practitioners, students, and communities with engaging, quality content from diverse leaders in the counter-trafficking community.
Intervention: Through their Search and Rescue program, TER has become an expert in helping police find and free survivors and arrest traffickers for legal prosecutions. TER trains local operatives to identify victims, build effective cases, utilize technology and covert gear, and support law enforcement in operations.
Aftercare: TER’s Beyond Rescue program serves survivors and the exploited in the countries where the organization works. Utilizing a trauma-informed approach and working in collaboration with other NGO partners, TER uniquely tailors aftercare services to fit those in greatest need in the areas in which they operate.
With seven global offices and a staff of 80, TER now operates in six countries globally. To date, they’ve assisted police in the rescues of just over 1,500 trafficking victims, and have empowered more than 820 arrests of perpetrators and traffickers in the countries in which they operate.
While it’s almost incomprehensible that human trafficking is happening on such a large scale, Matt was very pointed about the key drivers. “What’s driving it [sex trafficking] is the demand for cheap sex, the desperation of vulnerable communities and those who are willing to exploit them for a profit.” Matt stated.
Interestingly, although organized crime is very involved in international human trafficking operations at the global level, a great deal of human trafficking is conducted and controlled at the local level. As Matt explained, “I think it’s a misperception that human trafficking is all about foreign sales. It’s not. Human trafficking is taking place to support local demand.”
The economy, especially post-COVID, has also been a big driver as victims from impoverished countries seek jobs (and alleged riches) elsewhere. Some sign contracts where promises of pay are made but never kept. Others may have an inkling of what they are getting into, (sex for pay), but do not realize how dangerous and exploitative the situations in which they find themselves ensnared really are.
How Cellebrite is Helping
Working in partnership with TER, Cellebrite provides training and strategic resources for investigative teams that would not have access to technology solutions otherwise.
Matt recalled one investigation where criminals were moving thousands of Rohingyas from Burma down to Malaysia, ransoming them off and selling them to the fishing or sex industries; this had been happening for 10 to 20 years. Everybody knew about it but no one was ever able to prove anything because there were so many corrupt police officers protecting the operation. It wasn’t until Cellebrite technology was employed by good cops who had the courage to move forward knowing that real evidence could be identified and the perpetrators (including a Thai General) brought to justice. Information lawfully collected from a single UFED device was all it took to break the case wide open.
Along with UFED’s, Cellebrite’s Investigative Analytics solution is one of the key tools being employed by agencies around the world to:
- Streamline Cases
- Focus on What Matters
- Recognize People, Places, and Objects
- Skip to Relevant Scenes Within Video
- Create Your Own Media Categories
- Analyze any Video Format
- View Identifiers as a Single Person
- Visualize Case Reports
Cellebrite believes in supporting the vital mission of TER. As part of the partnership between Cellebrite and TER, Cellebrite Training donated training seats for Cellebrite’s CCO and CCPA training classes. TER will use this to train law enforcement partners in digital forensics investigation methods and techniques.
Cellebrite Training also contributed to TER’s TraffickWatch Training Program. TraffickWatch is designed to educate law enforcement officers regarding processes and techniques required to successfully investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases. Cellebrite Training also assisted in developing and delivering a video segment supporting this objective. The video piece focused on methods and strategies for identifying digital evidence, harnessing digital data for investigations, and understanding best practices for handling and collecting digital evidence.
“Speaking from experience, there is nothing more rewarding than knowing that our technology helps save children, women, and men who have fallen victim to trafficking and exploitation and defend basic human rights to be free. We are proud that Digital Intelligence solutions and our team members are helping to accelerate the wheels of justice, close the circle for the victims, and maintain public safety and the personal security of citizens.”
Looking ahead, Matt sees a significant opportunity to better fight human trafficking with Cellebrite. He explained it this way, “It’s not enough to just rescue those being victimized, because traffickers will just go victimize someone else. We really have to take down the criminal syndicate, and that’s where Cellebrite is pretty unique…To stop human trafficking activities, having Cellebrite solutions in the hands of all of our police partners and beyond is a dream.”
“Personally, this work is about a little girl right now, a little boy right now, a man or a woman right now, who’s in some dark corner of the world, who fell into a trap, and they have no idea how to get home, and they’re just praying that somebody will help them get home,” he added.
“Oftentimes it only takes access to the right technology in the hands of the right police officer, who will change the world for at least one person, if not hundreds of people. That’s what keeps me going.”