I believe that technology can be leveraged to empower people in amazing ways, but I also recognize that it can also be used in deeply disturbing ways. All too often, when we as a society see technology being used in horrible ways, we want to blame and ban the technology. As a researcher invested in leveraging the visibility of ugliness to make serious cultural change, my role is to step back and see if we can understand better what’s going on in order to more significantly impact the issue at hand.
I know that technology is being used in the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. I also know that many people have responded to the visibility of “child sex trafficking” on commercial websites by wanting to shut down those commercial websites. Seeing horrible things makes people want to act, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, without focus, those actions can be counterproductive. As a researcher dedicated to ending crimes against children, my goal is to make sure that we understand what we’re doing so that we actually address the core of the problem, not just the most visible symptoms of it. Unfortunately, we know very little about how children are advertised, bought, sold, and exploited through the use of technology. There are plenty of anecdotes, but rigorous data is limited. This I realized was something that I could help with. As a researcher, my goal has been to try to untangle the complex ecosystem and obtain data that can help us actually go after the root of the problem.
I worked with Heather Casteel and Mitali Thakor to construct a framing document to ask challenging questions about how technology is being used in human trafficking and, specifically, the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Microsoft Research Connections (Rane Johnson-Stempson), the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit (Samantha Doerr, Bill Harmon, and Sue Hotelling), and I put together an RFP last December asking for researchers to submit proposals about how they would research and address some of the hard puzzles in this ecosystem. We were surprised – and delighted – to get far more viable, thought-provoking, and important proposals than we could fund. After a difficult decision process, we decided to fund six projects that are intended to bring important research to bear on this important issue. The grant recipients we funded are as follows:
- Dr. Nicole Bryan, Dr. Ross Malaga, and Dr. Sasha Poucki of Montclair State University and Dr. Rachel Swaner of the Center for Court Innovation, for research on how networked technologies, including the Internet, mobile phones, and social media, are used by “johns” to procure children for sexual purposes.
- Dr. Susan McIntyre of Calgary, Alberta, Dr. Dawne Clark of Mount Royal University, and Norm Lewis research assistant at Mount Royal University, for research on the role of technology in the recruiting, buying, and selling of victims in the sex trafficking industry.
- Professor Mary G. Leary of the Catholic University of America, for a comprehensive assessment of judicial opinions on child sex trafficking issued over the last ten years.
- Dr. Kimberly Mitchell of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, for research on technology’s role in facilitating child sex trafficking and understanding the benefits and obstacles for law enforcement.
- Dr. Jennifer Musto of Rice University, for research on how law enforcement leverages the benefits and overcomes the obstacles of using technology in combating the trafficking of children for commercial sexual exploitation.
- Dr. Anna W. Shavers, Dr. Dwayne Ball, Professor Matt Waite, Professor Sriyani Tidball, and Dr. David Keck of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for research into identifying the clandestine language used in web advertising of child sex trafficking and conceptualizing intelligent software to identify such online advertisements.
My hope is that these amazing scholars will investigate these challenging issues and provide new data and analysis so that we can develop sound socio-technical interventions that really work to address the core issue: the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Through this process, I also hope that we can begin to develop a meaningful research community to really tackle these challenging intellectual and analytic puzzles from multidisciplinary perspectives.
It’s been awe-inspiring to watch so many different organizations and institutions work on combating human trafficking – government agencies, NGOs, advocacy organizations, and corporations. My hope is that this research will provide insight into these discussions so that we can develop new tactics and strategies for helping those who are marginalized and victimized. Additionally, I hope that the development of a research community in this area will help provide a locus to which practitioners and advocacy groups can turn to develop viable interventions.
I look forward to working with these scholars and going deeper into these issues in my own research.