(Recasts, updates with quotes from District Attorney, Human
By Ellen Wulfhorst
WASHINGTON, April 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sex
traffickers are growing more adept at using sophisticated
technology to exploit people, especially tools to hide their
identity and encrypt data, fanning an ongoing battle between
online privacy and security, a conference heard on Tuesday.
Websites, chat rooms and virtual currency all are used by
traffickers to hunt for child victims and sell them, said Kevin
Gutfleish, a specialist in violent crimes against children at
the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Traffickers advertise online, track victims by cellphones
and use encrypted messaging systems to communicate with
accomplices, experts say, fuelling debate between human rights
advocates who value protection against authorities concerned
that encryption hampers law enforcement and enables criminals.
"It has in some cases very significantly adversely affected
our ability to solve cases and to get justice for victims,"
Cyrus Vance, New York County District Attorney, told Trust
Conference/America Forum, a one-day Thomson Reuters Foundation
event on the fight against slavery and trafficking.
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 that protects messages.
Due to such encryption, Vance said his investigators have
more than 500 cells phones that contain potential evidence in
criminal cases but are locked and inaccessible.
He called on Congress to pass legislation balancing the
interests of security, privacy, law enforcement, crime victims
and technology companies.
"We want our privacy, but we also want to make sure that
where criminals are involved, there's going to be a way to solve
the crimes," he said.
But Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth said
human rights groups value online privacy and encryption in
protecting victims, and breaching that privacy wall would create
a vulnerability that will be exploited by criminals.
"Yes, there are a handful of crimes that are going to be
solved ... but think about the crimes that are going to be
committed," he told the Trust Conference/America Forum.
"There are reams of hackers out there, criminal and
governmental," Roth said. "And they're going to win."
The FBI's Gutfleish told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that
traffickers are keeping up with technology - and exploiting it
for their purposes.
"They're not opposed to using what's available to them," he
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
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 and the FBI
was keeping pace with this and also trying to benefit from this
"Sex traffickers are readily taking advantage of those
technologies that are available to them .. You have a lot to
lose when you're exploiting children," 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)