Trauma & Dissociation in the News

Technology and the Trafficking of People: Both a ‘Hunting Ground’ and an Opportunity for Justice and Healing

The United Nations has declared 30 July World Day Against Trafficking of Persons. This is an annual event that builds on their 2010 Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons. The UN urges governments across the world to make a coordinated effort to end human trafficking. Specifically, the International Day aims to educate people about human trafficking. 

Human trafficking is a crime that exploits women, children, and men for numerous purposes. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) defines trafficking as a global crime that trades in people and exploits them for profit. They consider that trafficking contains three core elements:

  • “The act of trafficking, which means the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons.
  • The means of trafficking which includes threat of or use of force, deception, coercion, abuse of power or position of vulnerability.
  • The purpose of trafficking which is always exploitation.” (UNODC Trafficking FAQs, n.d.)

Trafficking overlaps with, but is also different from, migrant smuggling, in that smuggling migrants does not contain the same element of exploitation. However, some people commence their migration as smuggled migrants and once in the destination country realise that they are essentially being trafficked and are completely controlled and exploited (UN Trafficking FAQs, n.d.). 

It is not unusual for people to have misconceptions about human trafficking, with some people assuming it consists of people being trafficked for enforced labor. Others assume it involves women and teenage girls being trafficked for sex slavery. In reality, trafficking can involve both those things, and more. 

The 2020 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons (UNODC, 2020) examined data from over 148 countries and clearly indicated that female victims continue to be the primary victims of trafficking, with 46% of detected victims being adult women and 19% female children. Twenty percent of victims were adult men, and 15% were boys. However, it is very concerning to note that the rate of trafficked children is increasing rapidly. An ongoing pattern in the data is that females tend to be trafficked for sexual exploitation and males for labor exploitation, although overlaps occur, with 35% of those trafficked for forced labor being female.

The statistics of the UN have been replicated in more localised research, with studies on trafficking within the European Union finding that 62% of trafficking victims were trafficked for sexual exploitation and 25% were trafficked for forced labor. Just as disturbingly, the remaining 14% were trafficked for purposes of forced begging, organ removal, forced marriages, or forced criminal activity. Within the EU, this research also shows a trend to increasing use of trafficking for sexual exploitation, with a reduction in enforced labor over time (Hughes, 2014).

Every country in the world is affected by human trafficking in some way, although the way they are involved may vary. Some countries are predominately countries of origin (usually developing countries), some operate predominately as transit zones, and others are countries of destination for victims (usually developed and wealthier countries). War and conflict increase vulnerability as armed groups often exploit civilians and displaced people are more easily forced into trafficking. It is also important to realise that not all trafficked persons are trafficked across national borders. In recent years, regions such as Western Europe and North America are increasingly finding that trafficking of vulnerable persons is within National borders. In fact, globally 65% of trafficking in 2018 was domestic. (UNODC, 2020).

A Focus on Technology

In 2022, the International Day focuses particularly on the role of technology in trafficking of persons. Technology can be a force for good, such as by enabling law enforcement officers to detect victims, identify perpetrators, and more accurately report on the types of abuse that occur. Unfortunately, while trafficking and exploitation pre-date the internet, predators have been quick to figure out how to misuse the internet to suit their purposes. In fact, Raets and Janssens (2021) suggest that the internet and trafficking are deeply intertwined and have actually grown together and shaped each other. They suggest that the role of technology in trafficking is becoming ever more sophisticated. This sometimes overlaps with the dominant role technology plays in the sex industry, with the sex industry in turn playing a big role in the internet development of search engines, chat rooms, and even facilities to pay online. In contrast, there are concerns that the response from law enforcement has lagged behind. In order for law enforcement to be more effective, laws need to be revised, and law enforcement workers need highly technical training (Hughes, 2014). 

Technology is an emerging risk for recruitment of young people, especially those who post information on social media which can be used to identify them as vulnerable or at risk of running away from home. At particular risk are teenage and emerging adult females who might be convinced to post suggestive or explicit images or to send these to an older adult. Those images can then be used to blackmail the youth into other sexual activity or to encourage or normalize commercial sexual activity. 

UNODC (2020) called the internet “digital hunting fields” for traffickers because of how it can be used to find vulnerable potential victims for both sex and labor trafficking. Online profiles can be used both to form connections with potential victims and use anonymous harassment to reduce their self-esteem. Young teens and children are especially vulnerable to this, as they’re going online at increasingly young ages but are not yet fully aware of potential risks of online communication. 

Studies from Italy and the United Kingdom show that technology has many benefits for perpetrators. It has enabled them to develop rapid and flexible operations and to more easily exploit people. It has made it easier for perpetrators to identify market opportunities and move victims between different locations to match demand. The authors argue that the use of technology has enabled perpetrators to grow their businesses more quickly as well as intensify the extent to which they can exploit their victims (Antonopoulos et al., 2020).

The importance of technology is also observed in US research. In a study of US law enforcement (Wells, Mitchell, & Ji, 2012), 132 agencies reported 877 cases involving juvenile prostitution. Of 132 cases investigated in detail, 35 (27%) involved the internet in some form. These cases were more likely to involve juveniles who were under 16 and non-Hispanic White, and the juveniles were more likely to be treated as victims. There were more third-party exploiters (almost 90% of cases), especially family members, close friends, or romantic partners. In the majority of internet-involved cases, the internet was used to advertise (n=21), and it could also be used to produce commercial sexual exploitation materials (n=14) and communicate with youth or buyers (n=5). These cases also highlighted the use of materials online for grooming victims.

Similar was found in a survey of 144 investigators from Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces and affiliate agencies in the US (Mitchell & Boyd, 2014). In this study, 69% of the investigators said that at least three quarters of the child sex trafficking cases they had investigated involved technology in some way, and another 10% said over half did. When technology was involved, it was almost uniformly agreed to play a very (33%) or extremely (60%) important role, including through allowing traffickers to find and market to clients, transfer abuse images, and collect payment. Investigators also commented on the role the internet had in increasing the number of victims and how it enabled access to a “greater pool of victims” and “made marketing easier”. 

The information in these studies resonates with the clinical experience of ISSTD Board Member and Katie Keech, who has worked as a clinician with trafficked youth in a variety of settings. She found that, among her case load of adolescents and emerging adults, “there’s a pattern of someone posing as a potential support or posing as someone much younger, and gaining trust with vulnerable youth. This can occur on Discord servers that youth frequent, or through gaming, where multiple players who don’t know each other log in to play. Sometimes this trust leads to requests for compromising photos. These photos, once sent have then been used to blackmail the youth to send more and more compromising or degrading photos that are presumably shared online.” 

Hughes (2014) points out that as the internet grew, traffickers could place false advertisements on employment sites, sometimes offering jobs targeting young females such as careers as waitresses, nannies, or models. Only later, once contact and trust was established, would the perpetrators force the girls or young women into prostitution. 

Additionally, websites, social media, and apps can be used to advertise and find buyers. Finally, livestreams, webcams, and chat rooms provide new avenues for sexual exploitation and interaction with clients. Traffickers who use internet platforms tend to have more victims, especially when multiple traffickers are working together.

Katie has also found that complicated relationships occur with perpetrators, with disadvantaged and traumatised youth being very vulnerable to coercive control. “I’ve had youth in neglectful and abusive family arrangements get caught in these coercive relationships, and even though the youth doesn’t feel good about being pushed to make more photos, they’ve run away and left their family to be with this trafficker that they met online. There may be some positive attention happening that pushes them further into this exploitative and dangerous relationship … Sometimes youth who are currently trapped in exploitation are pushed, under threat, to recruit other youth. Social media can be a way they connect and keep connecting with other vulnerable kids who might get either talked into compromising photos or connect with them more privately.”

Raets and Janssens (2021) also describe similar steps to the exploitation Katie sees clinically. They report that traffickers aim to enforce an unwavering compliance from their victims, to ensure future exploitation. Technology facilitates this process and can be used as part of coercion, blackmail, and emotional manipulation. The internet makes it easier to obtain personal data that can be used to exploit victims as well as develop personality profiles of victims and learn ways to best manipulate them. People of all ages, but perhaps particularly young people, often share a wide range of personal information on social media, ranging from location data through photos and chats to personal preferences, birthdates, and even emotional or financial vulnerability. The authors discuss one case of a trafficker who used Facebook to purposely target vulnerable teenagers who had run away from juvenile institutions. (While Facebook is no longer the site of choice for teens, there is always another social media platform emerging.)

A Positive Role for Technology

However, despite the obviously negative role of technology in trafficking, Raets & Janssens (2021) conclude their article by cautioning people not to overstate the role of the internet, cautioning that the internet has not caused people to exploit others. Human history is full of cases where the powerful have used and exploited the vulnerable for money, work, sex, or personal gratification. Similarly, Antonopoulos et al. (2020) urge us to not forget the human element:

“Much of what this enterprise involves, crucially relies on trust, trust-building and personal reassurance, all of which are the products of real-world, ‘flesh and bone’ human contact and interaction. To wit, (technology) cannot displace the human element in smuggling and trafficking.” (p 70).

Raets and Janssens (2021) encourage us to be realistic about the intertwining of trafficking, exploitation, and the internet. They suggest that both criminal investigators and other stakeholders, like health professionals, should be educated and well informed about the role of the internet in procuring victims but also be knowledgeable about how law enforcement can use technology to detect crime and collect evidence. 

On that more positive note, technology also makes it easier for law enforcement to turn the tables on offenders. Investigators can use fake advertisements to find offenders. Analyzing online data can sometimes be used to identify abusers and victims. Additionally, when there’s a technology trail of the crime, prosecutions against traffickers are more likely to be successful. However, there is always a concern among investigators that offenders are progressing faster in utilizing technology for trafficking than law enforcement are in detecting trafficking. 

Research conducted by Antonopoulos et al. (2020) also suggests that the internet itself can be utilised by vulnerable people to access information that can help and protect them. This includes information about human smuggling and trafficking, access to support services, and information about how to engage with law enforcement and health professionals. They conclude that technology cannot be conceptualised solely as ‘an unqualified new threat’ because it is also an opportunity for protection and empowerment of victims and potential victims. 

How can we be involved?

ISSTD has a unique role to play in this field, in that the organisation is potentially one of the few that will bring a knowledge of dissociation into research, policy development, and clinical practice. ISSTD, both as an organisation and its individual members, also have a sophisticated understanding of the role of attachment to perpetrators and the way families, carers, and friends can exploit vulnerable people through the attachment system. ISSTD is fortunately already involved with the UN, and the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) granted ISSTD special consultative status. This enables ISSTD to actively engage with ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies, as well as with the United Nations Secretariat programs, Member States, and the United Nations system at large. Consultative status also enables the Council, or one of its bodies, to seek expert information or advice from us in the areas of our competence. ISSTD’s UN Taskforce has been involved in several projects related to complex trauma. 

In addition, there are several areas of emerging research that ISSTD members are involved in that may overlap with trafficking and slavery. This includes research that explores the interface between familial abuse and the exploitation and indeed trafficking of both adults and children for sex work and the production of pornography (e.g. Middleton, 2013; Salter et al., 2020).

It is also important for clinicians to become more aware, when working with traumatised clients, of the potential for trafficking, including domestic trafficking. Young people are particularly at risk. Katie cautions, “Youth are very rarely going to be open with therapists about their experience in being exploited, and so to make it something that’s explored and talked about in the therapy, therapists need to know the active signs of exploitation, so they can start to create a space where the youth will begin to talk about it. This includes observing signs like extreme anxiety about accessing their phone, multiple changing numbers, or more than one cell phone at a time.”

Katie also adds some other thoughts, “I would like clinicians to step back from calling youth engaged in this “sex workers” or “prostitutes”. These are often children. Children cannot consent to these activities. And even if they are not children, these activities are often not voluntary. There are multiple levels of coercion going on that have likely been going on for some time. Laws that punish prostitution tend to punish youth coerced into this … youth get pushed into being traffickers themselves under duress, threats of violence or threat of taking away food and shelter …. so youth who are caught in a position of recruiting other youth should not be demonized. They often have very little choice.”

Other actions suggested by the UN includes:

  • Share, ‘like’, and comment on the social media messages for the World Day Against Trafficking of Persons.
    • Be vigilant in the online sphere and report suspicious pages or activities to the authorities, e.g., by making use of dedicated online mechanisms or helplines.

Finally, we can, as individuals and organisations, also play a role in lobbying, advocacy, and policy development to place pressure on technology-based private sector companies (who are some of the most wealthy and powerful companies in the world) to take more responsibility. Global advocates call upon tech companies to:

  • ensure measures and restrictions are in place which prevent the use of technological platforms and tools for trafficking;
  • use technological ingenuity to fight human trafficking;
  • proactively identify illegal and harmful material online and take immediate and effective steps to remove it.


Antonopoulos, G., Baratto, G., Di Nicola, A., Diba, P., Martini, E., Papanicolaou, G., & Terenghi, F. (2020). Technology in human smuggling and trafficking: Case studies from Italy and the United Kingdom. (SpringerBriefs in Criminology). Springer.

Hughes, D. M. (2014). Trafficking in human beings in the European Union: Gender, sexual exploitation, and digital communication technologies. SAGE Open, 4(4).

Middleton, W. (2013) Ongoing incestuous abuse during adulthood. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 14(3), 251-272.

Mitchell, K.J., & Boyd, D. (2014). Understanding the role of technology in the commercial sexual exploitation of children: The perspective of law enforcement. Crimes against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire: Durham, NH.

Raets, S., & Janssens, J. (2019). Trafficking and technology: Exploring the role of digital communication technologies in the Belgian human trafficking business. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 27, 215-238.

Salter, M., Wong, T, Breckenridge, J., Scott, S., Cooper, S., & Noam, P. (2021). Production and distribution of child sexual abuse material by parental figures. Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice No. 616. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

UN Trafficking FAQS (n.d.) Retrieved on 30.7.2022.

UNODC (2020) Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.

Wells, M., Mitchell, K. J., & Ji, K. (2012). Exploring the role of the internet in juvenile prostitution cases coming to the attention of law enforcement. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 21(3), 327–342.