Messaging app fights trafficking

This article originally appeared on Gadget.

It’s a given that criminals rely heavily on technology to help coordinate their activities, and distribute the resultant loot. From encrypted messaging to cybercrime to selling nefarious services on the Dark Web, the computer is the crook’s best friend.

However, the same can be said for its use in combating crime. Again, the benefits are obvious: from coordinating crimefighting to tracking criminal activity to analysing evidence.

But there is another level at which technology plays a fundamental role: helping the victims of crime. Especially where the after-effects of crime are not a police matter.

One of the great unknown case studies of our time is the work of the Freedom Shield Foundation (FSF), a US non-profit organisation established to counter human trafficking and the persecution of religious minorities. It operates largely in the Middle East and South East Asia but has also conducted operations in southern Africa. The FSF uses a platform called Wickr to secure their operatives’ communications as they coordinate rescue missions and provide trauma care to survivors.

Wickr is an instant messaging app that allows users to exchange end-to-end encrypted messages, photos, videos, and file attachments. It is also a collaboration tool, allowing administrative control and data governance. Think of it as WhatsApp meets Teams, but with security at its core. Created in 2018, it was acquired by Amazon Web Services (AWS) last year.

During a breakaway session at the recent AWS re: Inforce conference in Boston, FSF founder Rolando Lopez, a former FBI Special Agent, provided a startling glimpse into the role of Wickr in facilitating operations.

“A lot of people have not heard of us and that’s a good thing,” he said. “The people that volunteer with us come from all walks of life: former military, former agency people, folks with incredible cyber background, and a lot of analysts.

“We’re targeting organised crime groups that are trafficking in women and children, insurgency groups and terrorist groups. When we talk about human trafficking, we’re also talking about child soldiers and child soldier recruitment, and we’re looking at organ trafficking of these very people.”

The inspiration for the organisation came out of Africa in 2009 when Lopez received an email from a nurse friend travelling to orphanages around the continent. She told him that a gang of 50 men had just broken into an orphanage, beat the house mother into a coma, and gang-raped children.

“There’s this righteous anger that brews up and you say this can’t be happening and there are people that can make a difference.”

Within days, FSF had been established, initially to help orphanages around the world. Today it supports more than 6,000 children in 14 countries and deals with kidnappings and extortions. Recently it worked in Ukraine, where many orphans that were in harm’s way were evacuated.

“Why we’ve been around a long time is that we stay under the radar. Wickr has played a big part in helping us do that. We’ve developed sources around the world, and in a particular country, when we work with the national police or with the military, we develop assets and resources that can help us to conduct recoveries of children or women.

“Because threats change daily, Wickr has allowed us to communicate with our teams in countries where they have people they need moving. We’re able to share the actual location, with confidence that we’re not going to be intercepted. It’s protected a lot of our pickup locations because we can talk directly from the United States or in-country to our person who’s on the ground and about to pick up a victim. The location piece has been a big deal for us.”

Equally importantly, when they operate in surveillance-heavy countries like Iran or China, Wickr allows their communication to look like regular Internet traffic.