“Having Cellebrite technology has been hugely important, especially to frontline officers who are coming in contact with potential victims of human trafficking at a border, on a boat or through raids on hotels.”

This month, organizations around the world have been highlighting the horrors of human trafficking by joining in the Human Trafficking Awareness Month (HTAM) campaign.

HTAM has increased awareness of this horrific problem while highlighting the advances made by law enforcement, government agencies, and private groups worldwide to enhance prevention programs, increase victim protections, and successfully prosecute those who perpetuate these crimes.

Some organizations have also used HTAM to build awareness of equally disturbing crimes being committed against millions of voiceless victims—animals that are being illegally poached and trafficked worldwide.

Cellebrite has provided ongoing support to stop trafficking in all its guises by supplying digital intelligence technology and training to agencies and organizations worldwide in an effort to stamp out these heinous crimes.

One of the organizations they support is Freeland—a worldwide organization dedicated to protecting “vulnerable people and wildlife from organized crime and corruption while revitalizing ecosystems and communities for a more secure world.”

Recently, our team had a chance to sit down with Steve Galster, the chair of Freeland’s international management committee, to see how Freeland is fighting both human and wildlife trafficking, and how Cellebrite is helping to further those efforts.

Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

Cellebrite: What is the mission of Freeland and how has it evolved to respond to new challenges over the years.

Steve Galster: The mission of Freeland is to help governments and the private sector stave off trafficking. Freeland is focused on protecting vulnerable people, wildlife, and ecosystems from the threat of trafficking whether it’s human trafficking or wildlife trafficking.

We tend to find that most trafficking is linked to other kinds of trafficking. It’s run by organized crime with cross-border illicit supply chains. There is a lot of corruption involved. So, the gap we fill is to provide training and shine a spotlight on good officers.

People don’t realize that in a lot of countries, where people may seem to be corrupt, there are a lot of good officers who will do the right thing if given the chance, training, and moral support,

What Freeland provides is a combination of cheerleading, training, and information—all focused on breaking up illicit supply chains to give victims a chance to recover.

Cellebrite: What are the greatest technological challenges you face today?

Steve Galster: The biggest challenge we see is that the government officers who are backed by law to stop trafficking in large part are not equipped with the technology or training to stop these crimes.

The good thing is that there are great opportunities to use technology to roll back trafficking.

Cellebrite: What role has technology played in human trafficking? How is it affecting this crime?

Steve Galster: We’ve seen a huge jump in performance when we’ve put technology in the right hands and provided training to frontline government officers and their superiors.

They’ve taken cases that started with the seizure of trucks or truck drivers and followed them all the way up to trafficking coordinators and kingpins, then seizing their assets.

We’ve seen an enormous impact by having access to technology that can extract critical details from phones and computers, and analyze them to speed up investigations and motivate investigators.

Most cases die right after a seizure. Whether it’s people in the back of the truck or elephant tusks hidden in cargo, once there’s a seizure, the investigation usually stops there. People take the picture, check the box, do the PR, and move on. The supply chain, however, remains intact and robust.

If investigators have access to something like Cellebrite technology, they’ll actually stay focused and continue the case. If they don’t, they’ll just move on to the next one.

Cellebrite: What is the importance of having Cellebrite digital intelligence tools in your arsenal?

Steve Galster: Having Cellebrite technology has been hugely important, especially to frontline officers who are coming in contact with potential victims of human trafficking at a border, on a boat or through raids on hotels. The problem is that officers almost never have this kind of technology. This is why we’ve gone out to the frontline and provided on-the-job training.

By letting them use this technology, they’ve taken cases involving simple seizures all the way up kingpins. A good example is the landmark case a couple of years ago here in Thailand when the Rohingya trafficking supply chain was broken.

Sadly, government officers get transferred a lot, so some of this digital intelligence stuff may be over the head of the next person that comes in.

To combat this, we’ve started to hold one-day digital intelligence primers, which allow investigators to ask any questions they want. To make it a little more accessible, we bring in local trainers from the Freeland team along with the Cellebrite team. Participants can talk to us afterwards about anything they didn’t understand, which encourages them to start using the technology more.

These presentations use local cases that participants will relate to showing how this technology made a difference and how it was used. It just makes it a little less scary and a little more attractive. We do 40 people at a time in the audience.

We’ve done one training session here in Thailand and we’re doing one in Africa soon. We hope to be doing one in Brazil as well. It’s on a demand-driven basis, but it’s very popular, and people are waiting for us to do it again here in Thailand.

Cellebrite: Why is the government not stepping in to play a larger role? Are they coming to rely on these primer sessions as a staple service of yours?

Steve Galster: No. We did a primer last March in Thailand. As a result of that session, the prime minister’s office purchased 10 Cellebrite Physical Analyzers.

Thai officers are now using these units in a prime-minister supported counter-human-trafficking task force. One of the Freeland trainers is basically imbedded with them to answer questions and make sure they know how to use the technology properly. Down the road, some of these trainees will become trainers.

In Africa, the governments don’t have budgets for this. So, we have a governance team that is also trying to convince legislatures to apportion more resources for the issues we work on. We don’t get too specific about what they should buy, but we try to encourage them to start building bigger budgets.

Cellebrite: Do you actually get into legislative dialogue?

Steve Galster: We do. We’ve said in our reports that ‘the reason wildlife and human trafficking are so pervasive is because trafficking is still much more rewarding than counter-trafficking.’

We look at these officers and see that they’re hamstrung by lots of laws. They get paid very little and nobody put gas in their tank.

This goes back to the fact that most governments haven’t matched their big proclamations and speeches about trafficking with money in the bank. This is why we’ve also been pushing the idea of restitution to incentivize enforcement.

People talk about the billions of dollars human trafficking is generating, but where’s all that money? Is it cash? Is it tied up somewhere? Let’s get it back.

Governments should reclaim these funds, but before they put all the money back in the central treasury, they should reward some of the agencies that found it.

We would also argue that put some of the recovered funds should be set aside as a restitution fund that could be paid out to the victims. This way we start to make traffickers finance counter-trafficking in a recovery effort. That’s really our long game here.

Cellebrite: And how has incentivizing investigations worked out?

Steve Galster: We’re still in the early days of developing this, but there are models for it. The U.S. does it. Canada, UK, and Australia also do it.

We’re just now introducing the idea and will talk about it in front of the press (with the police right next to us) in Thailand on February 26th when we issue our first report on counter-wildlife trafficking.

Cellebrite is listed in that report and everyone we’ve talk to likes the idea. But the agencies are saying ‘somebody needs to talk to our legislators about that.’

I think the incentive for legislators to refine legislation or introduce whole new laws that include restitution is that this is all new money that can come back to the state while helping victims. It’s a win-win.

Of course, in some countries we have to anticipate that people in high positions won’t want to see these kinds of incentives put in place because they don’t want the investigation trail coming to their door. But, we just have to keep moving it along.

Cellebrite: What makes Cellebrite’s relationship with Freeland so special?

Steve Galster: Lack of bureaucracy. I feel that Cellebrite’s leadership linked up with us directly saying ‘let’s help these guys.’ Some of the other companies we’ve dealt with are just too big and bureaucratic. There are lots of talks, but after a year nothing’s happened. With Cellebrite, things move fast. I think you guys took a risk and I hope you feel it paid off.

Cellebrite: There is a report coming out, which talks about statistics. Can you tell us about that?

Steve Galster: There is a report coming out soon that will focus on human trafficking in Asia and then one focusing on Thailand. Thailand has been the focus of a lot of criticism from the EU and the United States for not doing enough about human-trafficking crimes. Since we’ve been embedded with their team, we’ve had access to what’s really going on.

First of all, the Cellebrite technology used in the Rohingya trafficking case was big. By leveraging the technology, the authorities were able to bring down a kingpin who was an army major-general.

They put him in prison and they’ve taken a lot of his money. He’ll never get out of prison; it’s like a 300-year sentence, and they’ve taken his assets. Officials believe this sends a strong signal to other officers in the enforcement chain who might be contemplating becoming involved in trafficking while warning those still involved in corrupt schemes to get out or risk being been ruined like this guy was.

I’m not big on sticking people in prison for a long time, so that’s not what I’m really advocating here, but the fact that they were able to identify and take assets, and that they’re still trying to find more assets that were linked to him and his connections, speaks volumes. And it was all as a result of digital intelligence being able to provide link analysis.

Remember, that case started out with two cops stopping a truck with people stuck in the back. Officers just happened to grab one driver and confiscate his phone. After almost a year of investigation, they were led to an army major-general.

Obviously human trafficking supply chains are adapting. Now traffickers are trying to take Rohingya victims straight from Myanmar into Malaysia by boat rather than going through Thailand, so it did have a deterrent impact.

In summary

Human and wildlife trafficking continue to be moneymakers for criminals bent on taking advantage of innocent victims, but government agencies are discovering that with the right tools and training, even the savviest kingpins can be brought down.

Highlighting the ways that companies like Cellebrite, in partnership with organizations like Freeland, are bringing these criminals to justice is what Human Trafficking Awareness Month was all about. But one month of promotion is not enough.

 Only through continued effort, government cooperation, product innovation, training, and support can we expect to finally rid the world of the horrors of human trafficking. That’s why, at Cellebrite, we rededicate ourselves every day to making the world’s best digital intelligence solutions to build a safer world.