In this blog, a Fivecast Tradecraft Advisor leverages their intelligence expertise to showcase the capability of OSINT tools to combat human trafficking.
There is no question that social media and online platforms have enabled countless businesses to expand their global reach by making it much easier for them to connect with markets and advertise to previously difficult-to-reach customers. Unfortunately, legitimate businesses are not alone in leveraging the internet’s connective powers; many nefarious actors have also leveraged the tools and access provided by social media, online platforms, and messaging apps to grow their influence – including those involved in human trafficking and smuggling.
The Tech Transparency Project (TTP) recently published an article outlining a study in which they interviewed over 200 migrants and found that a majority of individuals relied on social media to facilitate their illegal movement across the southern border into the United States.
The Prevalence of Human Trafficking Online
When Fivecast Tradecraft Advisors looked for social media channels, pages, and accounts dedicated to facilitating human smuggling, they weren’t particularly hard to find. Not only were they readily discoverable, but the behavior of many participants and posters was clearly geared towards creating a space where migrants could become easy prey for thieves, scams, and human trafficking operations. And we’re not just talking about border crossings into the United States, as there are plenty of online groups geared towards facilitating illegal smuggling of persons into Europe, Australia and other desirable locations.
Tracking Human Trafficking Networks and Behavior
Fivecast identified several global networks on social media dedicated to openly advertising illegal services, recruiting individuals to support their efforts, and providing payment, route, and condition details. There were several details relayed on these pages that are essential for law enforcement and national security agencies’ intervention efforts.
Namely, these sites typically would create an opportunity to identify:
- Evidence of previous human smuggling – e.g., video recordings, named accounts coordinating services
- Potential future routes and methods for human smuggling – e.g., modes of transportation, routes, and obfuscation techniques
- Identified scammers or dangerous individuals that could be involved in victimizing migrants
- Intelligence on the criminal enterprise – social network of the business, payment routes, new recruits, and customers
Screenshot of a video in a Telegram channel showing evidence of border crossing.
It’s worth noting that the people running and participating in these channels seem to be very aware that their communications are not totally secure. Among the operational security steps taken to mitigate this concern that we’ve observed are:
- The redirection of anyone expressing interest in an advertisement to a more secure communication method – direct messages, encrypted apps, or even a phone number.
- The use in a lot of advertisements of non-explicit terminology or media depictions to indicate the nature of the services while avoiding obvious keyword detection.
- The rapid rotation of content through several social media accounts and the deletion of content after it was viewed.
Leveraging OSINT to Uncover Human Trafficking
Accessing and overcoming persistent efforts to obfuscate human trafficking and smuggling communications online can be incredibly challenging for an intelligence analyst or investigator to do manually. With our open-source intelligence solution, Fivecast analysts were able to rapidly discover, collect, and extract critical insights on the individuals managing these criminal enterprises and their associated operations. These solutions enable access to more online data, reduced time extracting insights, and increased coverage of crimes that may impact national security. Using Fivecast ONYX this can be achieved with less reliance on already overwhelmed staff through a reduction in manual processing.
It’s essential that law enforcement and national security agencies consider social media intelligence – and automation and analytic solutions that provide simpler and more effective access to this data – as a starting point in investigating illicit businesses and criminal networks. This aids not only in stopping people smuggling but enhances the safety of possible victims of scams, exploitation, and human trafficking.