Technology is evolving at lightning speed. We can order food for immediate delivery, print 3D limbs, and use our phones to control drones.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly led to efficiencies as people have adjusted to working from home, connecting across time-zones and national borders.
But as children joined online classrooms to keep safe from COVID-19, they became increasingly exposed to online threats, known as cybercrime. The convenience of carrying out financial and other transactions from the comfort of home unfortunately enables cyber criminals to entice, deceive, and exploit users without meeting face-to-face.
According to UNICEF, at the height of COVID-19 lockdowns up to 1.6 billion children were affected by school closures causing the largest international disruption to education in modern history. 80 per cent of children in 25 countries reported feeling a sense of danger in online interactions.
Laws, policies, and practices have struggled to keep up with the evolving nature of cybercrime.
Abuse of technology
Economic downturn across the ASEAN region as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with an increase in online activity, has placed more people at risk of being deceived by the promise of opportunities. Many are finding themselves in exploitative conditions that they cannot escape from – essentially human trafficking. Countries that have not traditionally been targeted by traffickers are now finding their citizens are being exploited online.
Technology has become a tool for traffickers to facilitate, organise, network, and evade authorities with greater speed, less cost, and more anonymity.
Traffickers recruit victims using social media to circulate hoax news and false information.
In the Greater Mekong region, police have rescued victims from casinos trafficked from neighbouring countries who were targeted through social networks such as Facebook, Zalo and Telegram. One migration destination country has also seen cases of citizens being deceived by false employment opportunities and held captive whilst ransom demands are made for their freedom.
Crypto-currency and informal payment systems are increasingly used for international transactions making them difficult to detect and investigate.
Despite these challenges, governments and authorities are developing new and creative ways to prevent, disrupt and respond.
Leveraging technology in the fight against trafficking
During the COVID-19 pandemic, transnational cooperation in trafficking cases took place over Zoom, regional conferences adapted to webinar formats, prosecutors undertook eLearning over classroom-based training, and some courts adopted tech-savvy approaches to administering justice.
And the use of video conferencing technology increased, allowing trafficked victims – often the only witness in a trafficking case - to feel safe and comfortable when giving evidence during a criminal trial.
For example, in response to pandemic restrictions, the Supreme Court in the Philippines issued a circular to continue court filings and prosecution efforts through ‘e-courts’. Judges heard victim testimonies virtually in trafficking cases through a live stream, not only as a COVID-19 prevention measure, but also so that victims could feel safer. Virtual testimonies are now a permanent feature of the Philippines’s judicial system.
And the national courts in Thailand conducted 11 advance hearings for 67 witnesses in 2020 and admitted video testimonies as evidence, in an attempt to increase victims’ willingness to participate as witnesses. This also allowed interpreters and support persons to connect remotely at a lower cost to the court and for the benefit of the witnesses.
Mutual learning and best practice
Several ASEAN member states, with support from ASEAN-ACT, have engaged in a series of workshops about digital evidence - online chats, texted photos and online transactions - which can be used to prove individuals are involved in cybercrime linked to trafficking.
Collecting and using digital evidence is critical for combatting new forms of trafficking and reduces the reliance on testimonies. The risk of re-traumatising victim-survivors is significantly reduced through the giving of testimonies remotely.
Technology can also be used to support the recovery and reintegration of victims back into society.
For example, the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS) in Thailand created a mobile app to report suspected trafficking crimes and request protective services in seven different languages. In 2021, 46 alleged trafficking cases were reported using this app, 303 users accessed its interpreting service, and 2,585 people read their rights using the app. The app is another channel that allows authorities to identify and rescue victims of trafficking.
We have also seen the use of text messaging app Line in Thailand to facilitate communication between officials and victims who need assistance, but who choose to stay outside of government-run shelters. Line allows victims to access health, psycho-social, housing and employment services.
The Witness and Victim Protection Agency (LPSK) in Indonesia also uses a mobile app to provide information on filing complaints and available government protection services for victims of trafficking and other victim-based crime.
Wiring the way forward
While we must address the harmful uses of technology in trafficking cases, it is also critical to acknowledge its potential for positive influence.
During the pandemic we learned that victim-survivors do not have to physically appear in a court room to provide evidence in trafficking cases. Instead, technology can enable testimony to be given in a secure environment and increase the likelihood that victim-survivors will testify.
We have also learned that the ASEAN region has the capacity for incredible innovation and creative uses of technology, particularly through accessible mobile apps. Australia will continue to work with our ASEAN partners to foster this. We will continue to work together on projects that allow victim-survivors and targeted individuals to be protected and supported.
We have learned that if we are to use technology in this manner, justice officials must invest in ongoing training and upskilling, and necessary equipment, to keep pace with evolving technology.
Perhaps most importantly, we have learned that technology is not a ‘catch-all’ solution. It is no replacement for targeted and tailored education, awareness raising campaigns and international cooperation to support investigation and prosecution. But we will continue to ‘plug-in’ to tech: because together, we can use it to outsmart the traffickers and better protect and support victims.