Human trafficking. Vice. Sexual and labor exploitation. No matter what you call it, the crimes and the people who commit them are among the worst of the worst—and most states, along with the federal government, have passed anti-trafficking laws. How does mobile forensics help investigators identify traffickers and rescue victims?

At the Crimes Against Children Conference last month, several thousand professionals from law enforcement, medical and mental health services, and advocacy centers converged on Dallas, Texas to learn the latest techniques in fighting child exploitation.

The crimes themselves can take many forms. Stalking, harassment and threats can be used against victims by pimps and pedophiles, as well as in dating and domestic violence. These perpetrators may also engage in sextortion, the manufacture of child pornography, and other forms of extreme degradation.

The professionals who come in contact with them can come from many walks, too. School resource officers, teachers and guidance counselors might encounter truant or runaway children who are working as prostitutes or in forced labor. Emergency room and pediatrician visits may bring victims in contact with medical and mental health professionals, who are mandated by law to report suspected crimes to police.

In turn, police need to know where and how to find evidence of these crimes. Physical evidence like bruising patterns, DNA and rape kits–among other signs and symptoms–paint only part of a picture. Very often in exploitation cases, mobile devices contain additional context. But to find it, police need to know what to look for.

Prostitution and human trafficking

A human trafficking network can be as small as a family or small street operation, have ties to large organized crime syndicates, or anywhere in between.

Pimps, labor traffickers and others communicate with both their victims and with one another via mobile device. Some of the communications–call logs, voicemails and text messages–may be business arrangements.

Others can show evidence of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and stalking, as well as drug abuse, all of which many pimps and traffickers use to intimidate and control their victims. Because traffickers may move their victims in an effort to avoid detection, GPS and other location-based data can be valuable. This evidence may be on both victims’ and suspects’ mobile devices.

Some of your evidence may be in another language. Be sure you have translators on hand if needed who can read the text messages or emails, and listen to the voicemail or other audio evidence.

Look to link data from multiple devices, whether among multiple victims or between victims and suspects. This can show important patterns, including trends in one-way communication and/or mutual links that may point to people in charge of the operation. Links that lead to more than one suspect can help police build conspiracy cases.

Child pornography and sextortion

Evidence of child sexual abuse may take many different forms, including video and still images; email, text and instant messages, both before, during and after the incident(s); GPS data, and so on. GPS data associated with images can be especially important. It can show that a victim and/or suspect was in a particular place at a particular time.

Even if GPS is not turned on, date and time stamps, along with other information contained within images’ EXIF data, can also be important. They can be correlated to other pieces of information on a mobile device, including communications, for a full timeline of events.

Again, look for links between multiple devices. Many child predators communicate with more than one victim, and sometimes with one another too. Their locations may coincide in multiple places at multiple times.

Cyberbullying and harassment

Multimedia text messaging (MMS), social media and images or video play key roles in these cases. Whether they are used in a larger human trafficking scheme, or occurred on their own–such as in the Steubenville, Ohio rape case, or bullying that is based in a single school–they can be vital in determining the case’s severity.

Incidentally, these types of evidence don’t just exist on the devices themselves. Look for it also in removable, concealable storage devices like SD (and microSD and nanoSD) cards, call detail records, cloud storage and device backups, wireless routers (including personal mobile routers such as the Novatel MiFi) and pocket-sized external hard drives. Know how to get evidence from each location, including how to write additional warrants or other paper if needed.

Special challenges

Knowing where and how to obtain evidence of exploitation from mobile devices is just a start. You may encounter challenges along the way, including uninformed prosecutors and judges, politics associated with “macro” cases in multiple jurisdictions, or even analytical requirements that go far beyond what your analysis tools can handle.

First, the evidence is likely to be used in other ways besides being presented as evidence at trial. It may help investigators to build intelligence about networks of human traffickers or child predators, locate victims who are trapped (literally or figuratively), or potentially may be introduced during victim interviews as a way to obtain information.

Regardless of how you envision this data being used, always be sure to use best practices, document your actions thoroughly and be prepared to present the information to multiple other investigators, supervisors, attorneys and others.

Second, while many prosecutors and judges have begun to educate themselves and some are quite savvy about high tech crime, others are not. Know your prosecutor’s strengths and limitations, and be prepared to explain digital evidence. If possible, learn how to help others relate to the evidence in ordinary, everyday language–for example, that cellular tower sectors are like pieces of pie. It will help you testify in front of a jury.

Finally, understand what mobile forensics, data analytics and other evidence-gathering tools are available to you, whether in-house or as part of a task force or other law enforcement organization. Know how to obtain access to those tools, and network with other investigators to learn how to leverage them to their best advantage. Enough agencies experiencing the same problem may be able to band together and share resources as a task force.

Human trafficking and child exploitation are evils that come in many different forms. Knowing that evidence of these crimes exists on mobile devices, and how to get the evidence, will help you rescue victims and build better cases against their traffickers.

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