How Open-Source Intelligence and Geospatial Intelligence Can Be Used to Stop Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is a worldwide problem. According to the International Labor Office in Geneva, the 2017 estimate of worldwide human trafficking was 40 million people, including 25 million victims of forced labor and 15 million victims of forced marriage. One in four of these victims are under the age of eighteen.  

As incredible as it may seem, human trafficking is often hidden in plain sight, so well organized and concealed that it may become difficult for even the victims—selected for their vulnerability or naïveté—to identify what is happening to them. 

Because human trafficking is often well organized and concealed, it is difficult for law enforcement agencies and government groups to identify, prove, and convict on cases of human trafficking, let alone ensure that recovered victims of human trafficking can live safely afterward. Victims of human trafficking are often afraid or unable to contact others for help, feel they have no other options, and may distrust the legal system. Ensuring that victims are safe from further victimization and that potential victims stay safe in the first place is beyond the scope and resources many law enforcement agencies have available to them. 

In addition, the human trafficking problem is becoming worse due to the use of technology to help recruit and control victims, transport them, and to sell their services online.  

Using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT), Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT), and other types of intelligence analysis tools may be a way to help offset the progress that human traffickers have made using technology. These tools can help defenders sort through the chaos of information surrounding human trafficking, identify patterns, and assist victims in finding their way to safety. 

Table of Contents

Why is human trafficking so hard to combat?

Human trafficking is defined as transporting human beings from place to place for the purpose of exploitation. This exploitation often involves forced labor or sexual exploitation, but other types of exploitation, such as organ exploitation, also occur.  

The definition of human trafficking may come to include online trafficking, where the victim is not physically moved from place to place but their services are sold worldwide using the Internet. 

All types of trafficking, whether performed by individuals or organizations such as gangs or cartels, systematically target those in vulnerable situations, then work hard to destroy the victims’ sense of self-reliance. This targeting often includes identifying people who want to escape already-terrible life situations, such as refugees or the displaced, and those with little control over their own lives and who are reliant on those in authority, such as children.  

Traffickers separate their victims from their support systems, brainwash them, and use a variety of tactics to break their will and ensure compliance. When trafficking involves moving the victims from place to place, the movement often occurs at times and locations where a great deal of other, legitimate movement in people is taking place, such as at ports, airports, bus and rail stations, sporting events, concerts, live auctions, and more. Chaos is used to conceal movement of the victims, who appear to be legitimate travelers or attendees, from place to place. In addition, the victim may be trafficked to an area where they do not speak the language, which may prevent them from reaching out to law enforcement agencies and others who might help. Victims of human trafficking, caught in a web of shame, addiction, and financial pressures, rarely self-report. 

An additional issue for those trying to help victims of human trafficking is the lack of accurate, sharable data.  

Data on human trafficking victims is protected by a variety of privacy laws worldwide; in addition, data collected from human trafficking victims, if not properly used, may be a way for traffickers to find any victims who have managed to leave their situation. This may serve as another reason that victims may not reach out for help. 

Data are also not easily integrated between those trying to help. Statistics on the number of forced-labor fishing workers in Thailand, for example, are not easy to correlate with the number of young women abducted in Africa for the sex trade in the UAE. Overcoming the roadblocks caused by having to cooperate across borders is a constant issue. 

Many government agencies, Non-Government Agencies (NGOs), companies, and individuals are working to combat human trafficking, but their efforts are difficult to coordinate, both within a country’s borders and across them. Because of this, many initiatives are started, but their effectiveness can be limited. Groups’ lack of knowledge about each other’s initiatives and a lack of comprehensive support across the process of combating human trafficking leaves critical gaps that victims can fall through. 

What are OSINT and GEOINT?

Solving the problems of fighting human trafficking will require some innovative approaches. Technology has affected near every aspect of how human trafficking is performed, but it has also opened new opportunities to combat it. 

Some of the more interesting opportunities are occurring in the areas of OSINT and GEOINT. 

OSINT is the use of open-source, publicly available information to produce intelligence, or actionable information. The sources of OSINT include social media, information on public websites, published or broadcast information, and information obtainable by subscription. A skillful OSINT analyst can extract a wide variety of information from what is publicly available and combine it to produce intelligence that is otherwise not obtainable, such as location information from photos, relationships between partner businesses, or evidence of someone lying on a resumé. 

GEOINT is the use of location- and time-based data to create maps and other forms of geographically plotted information, such as traffic on shipping routes. GEOINT can be used to identify customer distribution, help farmers maintain soil health, and plan for emergency preparedness. GEOINT has been transformed using cloud computing, allowing powerful Machine Learning (ML) algorithms to be applied to a wide variety of data. Maps and other reports can be created quickly to reveal underlying patterns at a glance. 

OSINT- and GEOINT-based techniques can be used for a wide variety of tasks, but they both have areas of unique utility. OSINT-based techniques are particularly good at taking small, unrelated pieces of information and extracting the truths behind them. GEOINT-based techniques are particularly good at correlating large amounts of data in space and time in a way that allows broader patterns to emerge.  

Smoothly integrating the two fields of intelligence presents a challenge, but one that should result in unique solutions. 

How can OSINT and GEOINT help stop human trafficking?

Broadly, the problems surrounding the prevention and eradication of human trafficking happen on two different scales: the individual and the large criminal organizations.  

On the one hand, both individual and organized human traffickers recruit and exploit vulnerable individuals; on the other hand, human traffickers, particularly large organizations who are often also trafficking in other illegal materials, take advantage of loopholes in laws and technology to make their efforts less risky, cheaper, and more efficient. 

On the individual level, the most important solutions to human trafficking involve protecting victims and potential victims of human trafficking, but there are also important opportunities to collect evidence to bring individual buyers and sellers to justice and track the traffickers’ connections to identify and disrupt their organizations. 

OSINT-based techniques are highly suited to preventing and assisting human trafficking on the individual scale. A skilled OSINT analyst can use their techniques to identify key behaviors in victims and traffickers online, then search for those behaviors across social media and public websites. Once a potential victim is found, evidence of their exploitation can be gathered from public information. This information can be used to help bring down both individual traffickers as well as begin the process of dismantling criminal organizations that deal in human trafficking. OSINT techniques are also used to create online personas to serve as traps for human traffickers during sting operations. They can also be used to study how traffickers recruit and control their victims.  

One example of OSINT being used to help stop trafficking is the Torch Initiative, a partnership between Echo Analytics Group, a Quiet Professionals company, and All Things Possible Ministries. OSINT analysts volunteer to help law enforcement agencies identify trafficking victims and gather evidence against their traffickers on a case-by-case basis. 

On the systematic level, solutions include establishing the business relationships between traffickers and the supply chain, identifying where vulnerable people are being targeted, and studying patterns of human trafficking to discover the locations where trafficking is occurring as well as the legal loopholes that benefit traffickers. 

GEOINT-based techniques are key to tracking larger patterns of behavior, whether that behavior occurs physically or on the Internet. For example, if human traffickers are selling images of exploited victims online, those images can be tracked and correlated to a place and time. If human traffickers are moving victims from one location to another, the routes can be identified and prioritized for legal or support operations.  

GEOINT-based techniques can help identify the causes behind upswings in human trafficking, such as a natural disaster, migration related to climate, or refugees fleeing a war. Displaced persons are very vulnerable to being trafficked, and this information can be valuable in prioritizing locations to send legitimate help to prevent trafficking. 

How can OSINT and GEOINT work together to stop human trafficking?

As useful as OSINT and GEOINT can be against human trafficking individually, their true potential may be even greater when they are integrated. 

A critical shortfall in response to human trafficking is in directly helping victims. It can be difficult to prove that a trafficked individual is being exploited if the victim is not underage. In addition, what happens to a victim once their trafficker has been identified and arrested is often not well defined. They may escape one trafficker only to be taken in by another.  

Tools that combine aspects of both OSINT and GEOINT may hold the solution.  

Increasingly, those who respond to emergency situations use cloud-based technology to bring Artificial Intelligence (AI) and ML to the places where it is needed most. AI/ML processes are large and cumbersome, requiring immense amount of data. However, they can be used to create a much smaller model that can be downloaded to a smart phone or other device, providing sophisticated computing in the field. 

Integrating OSINT and GEOINT into a cloud-based application may be able to connect individual and systematic information to help combat human trafficking.  

GEOINT analysts studying the larger patterns of human trafficking could flag areas for OSINT analysts to focus their individual research. OSINT analysts, either as members of a law enforcement unit or working closely with a law enforcement agency, could research those areas, contact the appropriate members of law enforcement when they discover evidence of probable human trafficking, collect evidence, and assist with further inquiries.  

Empowering the appropriate agencies and analysts with OSINT and GEOINT capabilities and enabling them to communicate with each other more easily will not end human trafficking, but doing so will create a platform from which future efforts can build. Many groups are doing good work in the fight against human trafficking; however, scaling their efforts to help everyone in need will not be easy without technology-supported communication and intelligence analysis between the individual and systematic scales. 

OSINT-based techniques can increase the number of victims and traffickers being identified on an individual level. Passing that information to GEOINT analysts to coordinate information and establish patterns such as identifying trafficking routes can focus OSINT research more effectively. Human traffickers target vulnerable people who have fallen through the cracks of the system in one way or another. Using OSINT and GEOINT together to seal those cracks and connect those working to stop human trafficking may prove uniquely effective. 


Want to know more about our products? Find out more about Quiet Professionals’ Global Intelligence Support products here. Find out more about Quiet Professionals company Echo Analytics Group’s OSINT products here. Interested in working with us? See our careers here. 

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