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Policing: How software technology can improve detection in Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking investigations

Author: Nicola Wells
Date: February 2023

The terms ‘modern slavery’ and ‘human trafficking’ are more common in our psyche now.  Since the inception of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, they’ve been on the political radar and widely reported in general media.  However, detecting and preventing these crimes is increasingly complex with perpetrators becoming more sophisticated in covering their tracks. In this blog we examine why it is so challenging for Police Forces to detect modern slavery and human trafficking, while looking at how software can help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of investigations.

We understand that it’s often hidden, or at least hidden in plain sight.  We see Modern Slavery statements in the footnotes of websites, with commitment from various industries to tackle or even eradicate it.  There’s a National Referral Mechanism where anyone can report suspicions directly into the National Crime Agency and an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner whose remit is “to encourage good practice in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of modern slavery offences and the identification of victims.”[1]

There’ve been high profile convictions…harrowing stories of the Essex lorry deaths…vulnerable people trafficked into servitude in car washes, textile factories and brothels…individuals forced to babysit cannabis farms…even people locked in garden sheds, living in squalor for years on end.

The offences also extend to that other now well-known term, ‘County Lines’.  Vulnerable people, often children, exploited in organised criminal gangs to transport and sell drugs around the country.  Children as young as fifteen dangerously coerced to conceal Class A narcotics inside their bodies, then driven around the country by the adults exploiting them.[2]

It’s not comfortable reading.

According to UK charity Unseen[3], it’s estimated that:

  • 50 million people worldwide are in modern slavery
  • 28 million are in forced labour
  • 22 million people are in forced marriages
  • around 10,000 people in the UK are in modern slavery, according to the UK Government
  • more than 100,000 people in the UK are in modern slavery, according to slavery experts

Why is modern slavery hard to detect?

With numerous channels for the public to report suspicious activity, multiple charities supporting victims and increased police and political focus; why are these cases still difficult to identify and prosecute.

Because people don’t want to get caught.  As the potential for detection increases, so does the effort taken to reduce visibility, to put layers of protection between the crime and the perpetrators.

Take sexual exploitation for example.  Adult services websites have grown in popularity as places to advertise sexual services and whilst the majority are used by individuals acting without duress, inevitably they’ve been used by organised crime groups to exploit vulnerable people.  Bulk adverts using the same linked mobile phone numbers or other information were a useful indicator that potential exploitation was taking place – but criminality must adapt to avoid detection and the trend is now moving towards using temporary or ‘burner’ numbers.  The days of needing physical phones for this are gone, it’s as easy as downloading an app which can provide all the burner numbers you need.

Supply chain is another significant area in which modern slavery exists.  With rising expectation from consumers for ethical procurement since incidents such as the BooHoo clothing scandal[4], companies and public services must have robust processes for conducting the due diligence required to ensure they’re not supporting exploitation of people.  Frequently complex company structures and offshore registration make it a challenging task.  Overlay that with a shifting political landscape and the stakes are high, with sanctions checks and politically exposed persons to navigate.

The opportunities for software technology to support modern slavery investigations

The digital age presents many challenges to law enforcement but equally allows for expanded opportunity.  Detection and prevention strategies can be enhanced using modern technology, which is often simple and fast in its execution.  There is no ‘one way’ to detect or eradicate modern slavery.  It requires a holistic approach, covering a spectrum of agencies, sectors and public education.

Data collection is key to understanding modern slavery, in all its guises.  Whether that’s sharing information you already have or gathering crucial new insights, the technology available to law enforcement and the private sector have never been more cutting edge.  By utilising systems to improve speed, breadth and accuracy, the ability to turn binary data into rich intelligence is at our fingertips.  Data sharing can be fraught with legal mines but it’s more permissible than many realise.  The legislation already exists to support it, it just needs to be understood and used better.[5]

Proactivity is crucial for prevention, and this is where tools such as automated risk assessments, data cleansing and alerting come into play.  Using the indicators, let technology highlight signs of suspicious activity.  Remove the need for manually trawling multiple datasets to identify trends by leveraging readily available tech.

Back to that issue of sexual exploitation using adult services websites.  If perpetrators adapt to using burner numbers, law enforcement can now use new software tools and platforms to identify temporary numbers and email addresses.

When a ‘County Lines’ phone is interrogated by police, they often must wait days, if not weeks for the results from phone providers to attribute the calls.  Using these new software tools and data sources, attribution of phone numbers to an evidential standard can be done in bulk, in seconds, allowing more time to investigate and act.  Not only does this increase capacity to improve crime detection, it saves money by reducing the need for costly outsourced phone examinations.

Collaboration is also vital.  Without agencies, NGO’s and victim’s coming together, the effectiveness of any strategy is reduced.  Understanding where links exist across sectors, crime groups and geographic areas gives increased opportunity not only to detect crime and safeguard victims, but to educate and build on prevention activities.  Hidden links are much easier to detect with systems that can aggregate all the data into one place, then highlight and visualise where entities overlap.

What is the outlook for addressing these challenges?

One of the biggest issues is not lack of technology, budget or investigative approach, it’s implementation.  It can take months, even years to make change within the public sector, not least because of outdated, legacy systems.  If the hurdles to procurement could be reduced, innovation would flourish.  It’s about vision and action.

The UK Government has recognised the blockers at procurement level and introduced the Transforming Public Procurement programme, which includes a proposed Procurement Bill[6].  If successful in simplifying the current system, it will allow greater flexibility and opportunity to modernise.

The programme also aims to enable more commercial activity with small businesses, who are often highly agile and specialist in their field of expertise.  This agenda could transform the UK’s ability to address modern slavery.







Nicola Wells
Nicola (Nic) Wells is Synalogik’s Public Sector Sales Manager. Introducing Scout® to organisations across the public sector, helping them to transform their investigations activity.Nic is no stranger to investigation, having served as a Detective Constable for 14 years, before spending 5 years at Santander as their Financial Intelligence Manager. With expertise in investigating financial crime, human trafficking, modern slavery and immigration crime, Nic has the knowledge and passion to understand her client’s needs, working with them to improve effectiveness and efficiency.