Sun, Jun 24, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Policing of human trafficking relies increasingly on friendly hackers raising questions

By Inna Lazareva  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, LONDON

When not detecting intelligence threats to oil rigs and dams, Sergio Caltagirone spends his spare time hunting a different kind of predator — traffickers trading in human beings, from war-torn Syria to sleepy US suburbs.

The Seattle-based computer scientist, who previously worked for the US Department of Defense, Microsoft and NASA, is one of a new breed of digital hacker sleuths who are saving lives by tracking down traffickers and rescuing victims on the Internet.

“It’s just like any other business in the world,” said Caltagirone, who set up the Global Emancipation Network (GEN) with his wife, Sherrie, two years ago to analyze data to help law enforcers counter human trafficking.

“If you know how to find it, you will see it almost everywhere — almost every major site has some component of trafficking in it,” said Caltagirone, whose day job is with the industrial cybersecurity firm Dragos.

Opinion is divided about the rise of hacker sleuths who deploy their cutting-edge knowledge, skills and experience to support governments that often lack the time, motivation and innovative tools to tap into criminal slavery networks.

Human trafficking is among the world’s largest international criminal industries, with about 25 million people trapped in forced labor estimated to generate illicit profits of US$150 billion a year — and one which is moving increasingly online.

The US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children last year said that almost three-quarters of suspected child trafficking reports it received from the public involved the sex advertising Web site Backpage.com.

Backpage — described by campaigners as the US’ largest online marketplace for child sex trafficking — was shut down in April and its founders were charged in a 93-count indictment, including knowingly facilitating prostitution.

However, the years of lobbying that preceded the crackdown showed how authorities with limited digital expertise struggle to stop criminals who use technology at every stage of their business, from recruiting via social media to tracking victims using webcams.

“You have to know exactly where to go,” said Sharon Nimirovski, chief executive of White Hat, an Israeli cybersecurity firm staffed by former military intelligence agents. “You have to go undercover and live the hacker cyberscene, know its structure and pretend to be someone you are not in order to retrieve the data that you are looking for.”

While the precise methods used by hacker activists are veiled in secrecy, Nimirovski said that his team has used false digital identities to infiltrate hidden cybercrime Web sites to gather information on pedophiles.

“Just like the police work in the physical world, ‘white hackers’ act in the digital dimension,” he said, adding that his white hat hackers — or hackers working for good — share the criminal evidence they unearth with authorities.

GEN, which is run by volunteers, collects text and images from the open and dark Web — a part of the Internet invisible to search engines and only reachable using specialized software — to look for patterns that could indicate trafficking.

Via its Minerva platform, it shares this suspicious online activity for free with law enforcement, researchers and anti-trafficking charities that often do not have the capabilities to trawl the online black market and message boards.

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