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Bitcoin and Human Trafficking: Cause or Remedy?

Human trafficking is one of the most iniquitous criminal activities occurring on a global scale. This industry generates more than 150 billion dollars every year and has caused more than 40 million people to live in a state of modern slavery. This crime has become so widespread that every country is now identified either as the origin, transit, or destination for trafficked victims.

Like most other criminal activities, human trafficking has also made use of the digital space. The largest section of human trafficking victims is bought and sold for sexual exploitation, which is marketed through the internet as sexual abuse material and sexual services advertisements. Digital currencies are used extensively for making payments in return for such services and materials. Cryptocurrencies, especially Bitcoin, has therefore become very relevant in the human trafficking industry.

How does bitcoin fuel the human trafficking market?

Like most other cryptocurrencies, bitcoin is free from centralised control since it is not backed by any government or tied to any specific international bank. With its popularity increasing rapidly, several countries have now started recognising bitcoin as a viable alternative to fiat money. Many countries have, in fact, already given legal sanction to bitcoins. Among its numerous features which draw customers towards it is its untraceability. This means that when you use bitcoins to make payments through platforms like the Bitcoin Mining, these transactions cannot be traced back easily to you. Although this decentralisation was aimed at promoting international trading and globalisation and increasing the accessibility of bitcoins, it has instead been facilitating illegal transactions and nefarious activities conducted by human traffickers, arms smugglers, and drug dealers.

The anonymity offered by bitcoins has helped human traffickers to buy and sell human beings for exploitation, sexual and otherwise, without the fear of being apprehended. Since bitcoin transactions are hard to trace using these traffickers can easily avoid the legal radar. Bitcoins have played an especially significant role in online purchases of sexual material and illegal sexual services. In many cases, sex workers who meet potential clients via various websites are trafficked and forced into the act. Many websites also sell child sex abuse material. While using bitcoins, these sites can easily avoid tracking. Bitcoins provide immunity to customers who make such purchases and the traffickers who earn from these.

Bitcoin as a solution to human trafficking

The use of bitcoins in human trafficking is not necessarily bad news. Although bitcoin transactions are difficult to trace back to users, doing so is not impossible. Moreover, blockchain technology stores information regarding bitcoin transactions in permanent ledgers that cannot be tampered with. Thus, information regarding bitcoin transactions, although difficult to trace, are completely transparent and secure, and can be used to track human traffickers.

Most illegal sex service providers get their funds from several clients who pay small amounts in return for their services. It is, therefore, possible to track human traffickers who exploit victims for sex services and sell child abuse material by the nature of payments. Some patterns can also be identified that can help in the identification of potential traffickers. Some of them are:

  • Small but frequent transactions to a particular address or group of addresses.
  • Continuous transactions during the night
  • Purchase and sale of tokens generated specifically for websites advertising sex services
  • Transactions with previously identified sex service provider

The use of bitcoins in human trafficking is a cause of concern for the bitcoin industry. Along with being a moral and ethical concern, it also tarnishes the industry and harms its credibility. However, bitcoin can also be used to the advantage of investigators if the resources are harnessed properly. If these transactions were to happen through fiat money, this would become impossible.

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