WASHINGTON, April 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sex traffickers are growing increasingly adept at using sophisticated technological advances to exploit children, especially tools to hide their identity and encrypt data, according to a top FBI specialist.
Websites, chat rooms and virtual currency all are used by traffickers to hunt for victims and sell them, said Kevin Gutfleish, a specialist in violent crimes against children - including sex trafficking - at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
"They are keeping up with technology and exploiting it for their purposes, their illegal businesses," Gutfleish told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "They're not opposed to using what's available to them."
Traffickers who once recruited victims in person now can use websites, apps, chat rooms and online groups, he said.
"They cast a much wider net, and there are perhaps an unlimited number of potential victims out there," said Gutfleish, a speaker on Tuesday at Trust Conference/America Forum, a one-day Thomson Reuters Foundation event on the fight against slavery and trafficking.
Traffickers use online means to advertise, Global Positioning Systems in cell phones to track their victims and encrypted messages to communicate with accomplices, he said.
Tech giants Apple and Google have come under scrutiny after changing their operating systems in 2014 to encrypt users' data by default which boosted privacy online but made it harder for law enforcement agencies to get information off smartphones.
Facebook-owned messaging system WhatsApp last year turned on end-to-end encryption so only the person sending the message and the person receiving the message can see what is sent.
This has pitted human rights advocates welcoming increased online privacy against authorities voicing concerns that encryption technologies can endanger the public by blocking access to information between traffickers or other criminals.
A survey of more than 1,000 law enforcement officers conducted for the Department of Justice last year found more than a third said the technical sophistication and expertise of sex traffickers had increased in the last five years, Gutfleish said.
In particular, they reported seeing an increase in the use of tools and services that protect identities such as proxy servers that can mask the source of communication.
"Sex traffickers are readily taking advantage of those technologies that are available to them," he said.
"You have a lot to lose when you're exploiting children."
He said the FBI was keeping pace with the misuse of new technology but also trying to benefit from this technology.
Gutfleish said the number of children being sex trafficked in the United States was difficult to determine.
A concerted effort by several hundred federal, state and local law enforcement agencies last fall turned up 82 sex trafficking victims and 239 offenders in four days, he said.
"What we do know is that this is a very pervasive crime all across the United States. If you look for it, you will find it," he said. (Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)