Cellebrite APAC assists NGO in the effort to end human trafficking

Human trafficking is epidemic across the world, perhaps especially in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region, where the prevalence of trafficked persons is more than twice the global prevalence. There, the non-governmental organization (NGO) NVADER assists law enforcement in identifying both victims and suspects in human trafficking crimes.

As NVADER founder and executive director Daniel Walker explains in the video below, human trafficking is one of the fastest growing forms of international crime, bringing US$32 billion in revenue each year to criminal organizations. That’s because it’s one of the lowest risk, highest gain forms of crime, with criminals selling and reselling women and children—and incurring low penalties even if they are caught.

That’s why Walker founded NVADER in 2012. Acting on tips from informants, other NGOs, or law enforcement agencies requesting assistance, NVADER spearheads intelligence-led operations to gather what Walker calls “compelling evidence” against human traffickers.

Yet investigators often found themselves with limited evidence. “During some of our operations in Southeast Asia, we saw that the police would leave the perpetrators’ cell phones on them and never seize them as evidence or of potential avenues for further investigation,” says Walker.

“It became apparent that they did not have the technology to properly analyze the cell phones.  Once of our volunteer staff who had used a UFED as part of an investigation in the New Zealand Police, suggested that we contact Cellebrite.” It was then that Terry Loo, of Cellebrite APAC, arranged to procure a donated UFED Touch to the NVADER team.

Next came training, not just for NVADER staff, but also for local law enforcement agencies, which the NGO empowers to do their own investigations. “Local police in Thailand, for example, now know that any cell phones can be examined. When we are on site they are much more willing to seize them and/or include them as part of the forensic search,” says Walker.

In a single year, the NGO rescued 40 women and children from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, and has facilitated the successful arrest and prosecution of 14 perpetrators. Walker anticipates that the number of extractions will grow, from the five processed since the UFED donation, to many more.

And, while the NGO is still in its infancy, Walker further anticipates a strong showing in Thai courts. “We are opening an office in northern Thailand early next year and the UFED will be used much more frequently,” he says.

Mobile device forensics vs. organized crime

Two days ago the New York Times ran a story about a major Europol operation that took down a Spain-based cybercrime network. The Russian-led network, which also comprised Georgian and Ukrainian nationals and extended as far as Dubai, used ransomware to extort money for “abusive” internet use.

What does this have to do with us? As part of its news release, Spanish National Police provided a video of the arrests taking place. Between minutes 1:55 and 2:43, the video shows two Cellebrite UFEDs in use.

While we have no details on the cell phones’ relevance to the investigation — it is, after all, still ongoing — we do think it’s a good bet that police imaged the devices on-site as part of their effort to root out other criminal cells. Indeed, cell phones’ relevance to organized crime in general is a topic we recently wrote about for Digital Forensics Magazine.

Criminal enterprises like this one have complex networks and ranging levels of hierarchies that use the latest mobile technology to thrive. These networks, whether regional or global, are run like sophisticated businesses. As the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph also recently pointed out, international gun and cigarette smuggling, money laundering, fraud, and human trafficking cost that country more than 100 million pounds per day.

This calls for authorities to be equally, if not more coordinated and sophisticated. Yet many law enforcement agencies struggle to respond to this relatively new form of crime. We’re pleased that Europol and the Spanish National Police  have not only factored in the latest digital technology trends as part of their strategies, but have also recognized our products as integral to their response.