The perpetrators of human trafficking prey on young girls using social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, offering gifts of clothing, cellphones and makeup. – The Associated Press file photo
Waterloo forensics firm helps police recover digital evidence
By: Liz Monteiro,Waterloo Region Record
WATERLOO REGION — When the evidence you need to arrest a criminal is in the cloud, it’s an uphill battle solving the crime.
Digitally enabled crime is a challenge for police investigating human trafficking, said Neil Desai, vice-president of Magnet Forensics, a digital forensics firm based in Waterloo.
“If someone is trying to lure someone through Facebook, Facebook keeps most of their servers in Ireland,” said Desai in an interview. He recently spoke at a talk on how technology drives human trafficking in Waterloo Region.
For police, getting evidence becomes a diplomatic issue as well as a judicial issue. It can take six to eight months, Desai said.
Human trafficking targets girls — some as young as 12 — who are coerced into sexual services.
The men who manipulate them are “Romeo pimps” who pose as boyfriends to gain their trust and love.
The majority of human trafficking in Canada occurs in Ontario, with most of it taking place in hotels and motels along the Highway 401 corridor.
Locally, victims can seek help from the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region.
Anti-human-trafficking support worker Nicky Carswell said the agency is working with 76 victims.
Traffickers prey on young girls using social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, offering gifts of clothing, cellphones and makeup. Other platforms include online video games such as Fortnite and GPS software.
On the web, there are various communities all of which have no patrols, Desai said. Police have 20th-century technology to deal with 19th-century law, he said. But criminals are able to access 21st-century technology at relatively low to no cost.
Desai said his company’s technology is used by local police to investigate these crimes. “We create tools for police to recover, analyze and report on digital evidence,” he said.
“Human trafficking has challenges given that digital forensics means working off a device,” he said.
That means having the suspect’s phone or the victim’s phone, and most victims are reluctant to give up their phones, which they see as their lifeline, he said.
Desai said many social media tools “are designed to socially engineer and keep folks on social platforms for a really long time.”
Perpetrators are “planting many, many seeds and going after the ones that are the best,” he said.
Desai said there is no way of knowing the magnitude of attempts that those who are trafficking are making to try to lure victims. “Can I report that someone is trying to lure me out? That someone is offering to take me out to dinner or take me shopping?” he said.
Desai said most concerning is that social platforms target minors.
Also targeted are those who may have mental health issues or are homeless and more vulnerable to the perpetrator’s tactics.
“I’m not suggesting they are complicit in a legal context but complicit in a moral context when they are trying to make their platforms more attractive to a 12-year-old to stay longer on the platform,” Desai said.
“It’s easier now than ever to connect with these people,” he said.
Carswell said victims are often re-traumatized when photographs posted on social media are shared.
“It’s out there forever,” she said. “The damage it does is pretty big.”
Carswell said it’s important for parents, teachers, and others who work with youth and vulnerable populations to remain current on language used online and get trained on popular social media platforms.