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Human Trafficking Investigative Tools & Methodologies: Using Everything in Your Toolbox

June 06 , 2022

Integrating a variety of investigative tools and methods into your investigative ‘toolbox’ is critical to uncovering hidden connections and developing relevant leads. No one tool or platform will do everything. And without following investigative methodologies, your investigation could go sideways and take you off course, wasting precious time. When dealing with complex human trafficking investigations, you must use everything – automated tools, publicly available information like Google Earth and open-source intelligence (OSINT) tools – to piece together clues. And most importantly – you must use trusted methodologies as part of these online investigations.

Integrating Your Investigative Tools to Help Human Trafficking Victims

Recently, we worked with a partner to assist in yet another human trafficking investigation involving online trafficking of young victims. A potential bad actor was identified as possibly using an online ruse to lure young boys in Central America. Investigators received tips regarding this illicit activity but were unable to locate the actual place where the bad actor was operating. Investigators used our web investigative platform to find online images that the bad actor had posted of himself to determine his real identity and whereabouts. The web investigative platform also found several online locations associated with the bad actor.  However, they were unable to determine where exactly this person was staying within the identified city. Armed with images and online locations, investigators began to piece together who this bad actor was and where he was operating.

With photos developed through online applications, investigators used trusted open-source investigation tools methodologies, along with other publicly available data, to identify his location. The bad actor posted several photos of himself at different angles with the background visible in all the photos. He also posted videos online allowing investigators an almost 360-degree view of his potential location.  Looking at these video and photos, investigators were able to see some unique identifiers. Investigators were then able to geolocate his online locations. Finally using Google Maps, investigators were able to locate his exact location, leading to his identification and subsequent questioning in this human trafficking case.

Investigative Tools and Methodology: Keys to Success

To fully investigate all aspects of online human trafficking, investigators must use a variety of investigative tools and solid methodologies to develop possible leads in these cases. In this case, it was a combination of the Cobwebs platform and Google Earth.  Since dark and deep web, along with other online media can be challenging to access, investigators need an automated OSINT tool that can work in concert with other tools and data. It’s all about using every investigative tool available in your toolbox. Using insights from one tool may lead you to use another platform or type of data to verify what you found. In this case, investigators used Google Maps after finding imagery that clearly showed a city near the water with distinct landmarks.

Finally, investigative methodology is key. Using a solid OSINT methodology that is learned through online training with Benjamin Strick at the Centre for Information Resilience can help assist investigators with their mission. Using digital research methods and geolocation platforms, learning how to identify, verify and analyze information online helps generate intelligence that is meaningful to investigators in this case. Using a strong and trust methodology, along with all your investigative tools, is key for success.

John O'Hare

Lieutenant Johnmichael O’Hare retired from the Hartford Police (CT) in 2018. His career elevated investigative units that specifically attacked narcotics and firearms violence. In 2013, he was tasked with creating a Real-Time Intelligence Center that could support critical functions & provide analytical and forensic back support. He currently serves as a Business Development/Sales Director with Cobwebs Technologies with a focus on Threat Network Identification & Interdiction in the Web Intelligence Realm.



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