Technology and Trafficking in Persons during COVID-19 and beyond

Event Date: 
Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Technology and Trafficking in Persons during COVID-19 and beyond


Listen and share the audio podcast here.


The global expansion of modern technology, including information technology, has brought about considerable change, as well as several challenges, such as increasing anonymity online. Internet has since become an ideal space for human traffickers to recruit and exploit victims, in faster and more cost-effective ways.

The new reality of COVID-19 may be pushing this further afield. Measures taken to control the pandemic already have and will likely continue having an impact, including by increasing the prevalence of online sexual exploitation and the use of technology to facilitate criminal conduct and disrupting prevention and response services.

In addition to exposure to violent and inappropriate content, risky behavior and cyberbullying, for example, children are at greater risk of being gromed online for sexual abuse and exploitation, especially  women and girls, which the outbreak of COVID-19 contributed to exacerbate.

Further to its eight Issue Brief on the the nexus between technology and human trafficking, and following its 2019 World Day Against Trafficking campaign, on 12 May 2020, ICAT has discussed current challenges and solutions with the ITU-led World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) as part of its TalkX Webinar Series - Listen to the audio podcast here

Moderated by Ms. Morgane Nicot, Knowledge Development Team Leader at UNODC Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section, the live webinar brought together around 130 participants amongst ICT practitioners, government representatives, private companies, and civil society actors around the globe.

“Spending more time online, especially unsupervised, may increase online risks for children, including coming into contact with online predators”, warned Ms. Rachel Harvey, Regional Child Protection Advisor at UNICEF for the East Asia Pacific Regional Office. UNICEF and partners, including UNODC and ITU, have recently released a Technical Note on COVID-19 and its implications for protecting children online.

“Especially during lock-down, we have seen how crucial connectivity is to children’s rights. But without digital skills, education and protection measures, information and communication technologies pose significant challenges to children’s safety and wellbeing – both online and offline” said Ms. Fanny Rotino, Child Protection and Child Rights Specialist and Project Coordinator at ITU. Responding to these challenges, the new 2020 Guidelines on Child Online Protection (COP) , a joint publications of ITU and UNICEF, will serve as a starting point to support international and national efforts to develop better-targeted measures and more efficient actions on child online protection.

“Over and over again, technology helps traffickers to hide their identities and increase their anonymity through encrypted applications, paying or accepting money in cryptocurrency, and fake social media accounts”, OSCE Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and ICAT Co-Chair Mr. Valiant Richey. “Most importantly, there is an expansion in the scale of exploitation, which is where we see the real trauma”, he added.

Despite the pitfalls of technology in the context of human trafficking, technology can be, however, a defining factor in increasing the capacity of anti-trafficking responses beyond traditional human resources. Applications on data aggregation analysis, blockchain, artificial intelligence and “surface web” technologies can help responders identify victims, improve investigations and prosecutions, facilitate access to services for survivors, and enhance prevention efforts.

Ms. Hannah Darnton, Associate Director at Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), leads Tech Against Trafficking, a coalition of companies  - including AT&T, Amazon, BT, Microsoft, and - collaborating with global experts to help address human trafficking using technology. “Technology represents a great opportunity for the broader anti-trafficking community”, Ms. Darnton said, “however, the ecosystem is largely siloed and collaborative engagement between organizations deploying these technologies can be lacking”. “We mapped over 300 technology tools being used to combat human trafficking  around the globe, and have added them to an interactive map on our website. As the use of technology increases, we hope organizations can use this information to collaborate and share learnings and best practices”.

“I agree that we should hit the pause button slightly on the constant development of new tools and focus on how to properly disseminate them”, said Mr Richey, “we have to make sure that promising tools which already exist reach the hands of practitioners”.

“ICT tools remain indispensable for combating exploitation and abuse online, for taking down abuse materials, identifying victims and perpetrators”, added Ms. Harvey, “Companies also have a role in promoting awareness amongst children on online safety and available reporting channels, while governments must ensure that child protection services, including helplines and hotlines, are considered essential during containment measures, so that they can continue to operate”.

“Our future success in eradicating human trafficking will very much depend on how we are prepared for and equipped to harness technology to fight this crime”, Mr Richey added.

Now bringing together 26 UN system entities and international organizations with one single voice, ICAT is dedicated to promoting and facilitate coordinated responses against persistent and emerging forms of trafficking to prevent the crime, protect its victims and hold perpetrators accountable. You can follow ICAT through its Twitter page  @ICAT_News.


Find out more about ICAT’s Call to Action and list of resources to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic here.

With a view to continuing to assess the impact and challenges that COVID-19 poses on anti-trafficking responses worldwide, continue to share your stories on how the pandemic is affecting victims of trafficking in persons, as well as on tech-based solutions used to overcome some of these challenges, by tagging ICAT on Twitter @ICAT_News.