Technology a double-edged sword for human traffickers: Europol head

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Modern technologies, from messaging services such as WhatsApp to cryptocurrencies, are fuelling the rise of modern slavery across Europe yet new digital tools are also helping police to fight back against traffickers, the head of Europol said on Thursday.

While advances in technology have enabled traffickers and international gangs to target more victims, expand their illicit businesses and conceal crimes, they leave behind virtual traces for law enforcement to follow, said Europe’s policing agency.

But limited digital expertise and experience mean that police are struggling to keep up and tackle the $150-billion-a-year trade that is estimated to enslave about 40 million people worldwide, said outgoing executive director Rob Wainwright.

“Technology has lowered the bar of entry to the criminal world, which has had an expansive effect on the growth of modern slavery,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of his move to accountancy firm Deloitte’s cyber security practice.

“Our challenge is that technology is taking slavery into a darker corner of the world where law enforcement techniques and capabilities are not as strong as they are offline,” added the British diplomat who has led Europol for nine years.

From using social media to recruit people and stolen credit card data to buy plane and train tickets online to tracking victims via webcam and their phones, technology is used at every stage of the modern slavery business, according to Wainwright.

And the encrypted and anonymous nature of services such as Skype and WhatsApp, cryptocurrencies and blockchain makes it harder for law enforcement to track down traffickers.

“According to some judicial standards, police can intercept telephone calls but not WhatsApp calls,” said Wainwright.

“There is an imbalance in our criminal justice system.”

WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service used by more than 1 billion people, could not immediately be reached for comment but has previously said its encryption allows people to share personal information safely and securely.

“While technology is abused in a serious way, it is also a friend and fantastic tool for law enforcement,” Wainwright said.


Europol, which connects at least 1,000 law enforcement agencies from 40 countries, uses algorithms, machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze data shared by members and gain insight into Europe-wide trafficking networks.

The police agency saw a 14 percent increase in cross-border slavery and trafficking cases last year, and ran more than 50 top priority operations against these crimes, Wainwright said.

By harnessing data and working with the tech sector, web providers and social media sites, Europol can tap into networks with much more clout and reach than any traffickers, he added.

“If we are always on the back foot, reacting, trying to catch up ... we will face an uphill struggle,” Wainwright said.

“It is about whether or not we can master the digital world in a quicker, smarter and better manner than the criminals.”

From women forced into the sex trade and men trapped in agriculture and construction jobs to migrants trafficked at reception centers, technology is enabling the spread and evolution of modern slavery across Europe, experts say.

This poses a fresh challenge to police forces on the continent, which are generally not digitally savvy, innovative or up to speed with new technologies, according to Wainwright.

“Every officer should be digitally aware but the police are conservative in nature ... slow to change and evolve,” he said.

“The capability of the average officer is not quite there.”

A lack of political and policing will throughout Europe to see slavery as a priority is another obstacle, Wainwright added.

“Our response (to trafficking and slavery) in Europe depends on whether we can get onto a sustainable, firm footing in the near future,” he said. “And for that, I’m just not sure.”