United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Watchdog Agency Sends Exploiters of Vulnerable Workers to Justice, Using Digital Intelligence Solutions
In 2004, 23 Chinese immigrants drowned while harvesting cockles, or clams, in England’s Morecambe Bay. The Chinese immigrants, who were trafficked into the country via shipping containers and forced to work for gangs, spoke little English and didn’t realize that the tide was coming in as they worked in seawater in the dark.
The tragedy galvanized support for legislation to combat human trafficking, such as the Gangmasters Licensing Act – “gangmasters” being a British term for an individual or business that provides manual laborers for agricultural work. Britain’s Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) was founded a year after the Morecambe Bay tragedy to regulate the fresh produce sector in the UK and bring criminal gangmasters to justice. to investigate labor exploitation incidents and bring perpetrators to justice.
In May 2017, the GLA was rebranded as the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) with expanded investigative and enforcement powers– and with them, the need for a digital forensics department. With Cellebrite solutions in place, investigators can find detailed evidence of financial and labor offenses, strengthening their cases for prosecution.
Relying on local law enforcement for digital evidence handling
GLAA’s enforcement powers include the ability to prosecute people criminally for offenses involving modern slavery and providing labor without a license to do so. Initially, the work of the 120-person agency involved investigation of the agricultural, food processing, and shellfish-gathering labor markets, where exploitative labor incidents are more common. The expansion of GLAA’s enforcement scope now means the agency investigates labor exploitation and modern slavery across all industries.
GLAA often partners with local law enforcement agencies. In fact, in the days before GLAA had its own digital forensics lab, the agency’s investigators had to lean on local forensics labs quite a bit for data extraction and analysis.
“That caused quite a few difficulties for us,” recalls Tom Frost, an investigative officer for GLAA. “We were on their schedule – and they had their own investigations to do. So if we needed any digital forensics tasks completed, we’d have to request partner agencies to do it on our behalf, but we knew we were at the bottom of the queue.”
The workflows were uneven across cases, adds Richard Shrimpton, an investigator for GLAA’s Investigation Management Unit. “Every police force has a different way of doing investigations and uses different technology,” Shrimpton says. “We weren’t getting consistency across even the same investigations.”
The power of digital evidence
As Shrimpton and Frost visited digital forensics labs, they realized their law enforcement counterparts were reaping the benefits of Digital Intelligence tools. Digital Intelligence is the data collected and preserved from digital sources and data types (smartphones, computers, and the Cloud) and the process by which agencies collect, review, analyze, manage, and obtain insights from this data to run their investigations more efficiently.
“It wasn’t until we got in-house with our partners that we realized how much we’d been missing – and how much easier our investigations would have been if we’d been able to look at digital devices,” Shrimpton says. “The big thing we saw was how suspects communicated with workers, and how they controlled the financial element. It was all texts and social media messages – concrete evidence.”
The GLAA investigators had plenty of paper-based evidence to use when building cases against suspects, such as pay slips and tax revenue documents. But investigators knew they were missing out on timely digital evidence. When the agency expanded its mission to cover the entire labor market and also strengthened its enforcement powers, a digital forensics lab became a must.
“When we got those powers, we saw that instead of going to court for cases that could get a 10-year maximum sentence, we were going to court for cases that could get up to a life sentence,” Shrimpton says. “We were going to have to be more thorough.”
To launch their own digital forensics lab, GLAA investigators chose Cellebrite Physical Analyzer for digital data examination, Cellebrite UFED Touch2 for evidence gathering, and Cellebrite Digital Collector for digital data collection.
Tracking the trail of financial exploitation
The new digital forensics lab highlighted GLAA’s digital transformation in a case that went to court in mid-2022. Four years earlier, a GLAA investigator received a call from a licensed labor provider concerned about a person working at a factory in Wales. from a person working at a plant in Wales. The person, who was from Eastern Europe, told GLAA’s southwestern investigators that work was promised in a local bakery, along with suitable housing.
Instead, the exploiter placed the victim with a married couple who prevented the victim from taking showers, made threats to the victim, and charged double the rent initially quoted. When the person began working in the factory, his £500 weekly salary was paid almost entirely into an account run by the exploiters leaving the victim with an occasional £20 to live on.
The main issue with the suspects was financial control, Shrimpton explains. “The bank account was being controlled by the suspects. We find this a lot. The suspects give the workers a pittance to live off of.”
Working on the case in partnership with the local police force, GLAA investigators put their Digital Intelligence technology to work. Once they were arrested, the suspects turned over their mobile phones along with their passwords, allowing GLAA investigators to extract and analyze data and begin building a case.
Using Touch2 and Physical Analyzer, the investigators found photos of the victim on the suspects’ phones, along with images of the victim’s passport. The images would have been used to open bank accounts in the suspects’ names. Investigators also found evidence that one of the suspects was using the victim’s email address and pretending to be the victim.
“There was an instance where the victim’s bank account was locked due to suspicious activity,” says Frost. “The suspect was emailing the banks, asking for that account to be unlocked, pretending to be the victim. That was critical evidence, directly from the mobile phone.
Investigators were also able to match bank activity with CCTV of the suspects. For example, bank CCTV showed the suspects withdrawing funds from the account while the victim was at work in the plant.
The three suspects were found guilty of modern slavery offenses in August 2022. The exploiters were convicted of modern slavery offenses following a four-week trial at Newport Crown Court in July and August this year, with sentences of five years, four years, and 20 months, respectively.
Timely investigations protect victims
In addition to strengthening prosecutions, Digital Intelligence solutions help GLAA protect victims of modern slavery offenses by quickly extracting data from their phones, allowing the authorities to immediately return the devices.
“The Touch2 is perfect for these scenarios,” Shrimpton says. “We work with a lot of vulnerable people and potential victims – we want to look at their devices, but we don’t want to take their phones away from them. We can even go to a local police station and ask for a room where we can do the extraction.”
In the future, Shrimpton and Frost plan to expand digital forensics training for GLAA staff throughout the country. As the training is completed and each region has its Digital Intelligence experts, GLAA may add Cellebrite UFED Cloud to its digital forensics lab, providing rapid and lawful access to digital evidence in the Cloud.
“We’re looking at having a solid team in digital forensics, and not just the two of us,” Shrimpton says of him and Frost. “The digital forensics department has grown bigger than anyone expected it would, and it’s just going to get bigger.”
The good news is that by having its own lab, the benefits to GLAA will only increase as the department grows.
“We used to have cases that closed down because we just didn’t have the information that we needed to make a case,” Shrimpton says. “Now, for every conviction in every court case we’ve had since we opened our lab, digital forensics has played a big part in the prosecution.”