Addressing Human Trafficking: Guidelines for Technological Interventions

Two years ago, when I started working on issues related to human trafficking and technology, I was frustrated by how few people recognized the potential of technology to help address the commercial sexual exploitation of children. With the help of a few colleagues at Microsoft Research, I crafted a framework document to think through the intersection of technology and trafficking. After talking with Mark Latonero at USC (who has been writing brilliant reports on technology and human trafficking), I teamed up with folks at MSR Connections and Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit to help fund research in this space. Over the last year, I’ve been delighted to watch a rich scholarly community emerge that takes seriously the importance of data for understanding and intervening in human trafficking issues that involve technology.

Meanwhile, to my delight, technologists have started to recognize that they can develop innovative systems to help address human trafficking. NGOs have started working with computer scientists, companies have started working with law enforcement, and the White House has started bringing together technologists, domain experts, and policy makers to imagine how technology can be used to combat human trafficking. The potential of these initiatives tickles me pink.

Watching this unfold, one thing that I struggle with is that there’s often a disconnect between what researchers are learning and what the public thinks is happening vis-a-vis the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). On too many occasions, I’ve watched well-intentioned technologists approach the space with a naiveté that comes from only knowing about human trafficking through media portrayals. While the portraits that receive widespread attention are important for motivating people to act, understanding the nuance and pitfalls of the space are critical for building interventions that will actually make a difference.

To bridge the gap between technologists and researchers, I worked with a group of phenomenal researchers to produce a simple 4-page fact sheet intended to provide a very basic primer on issues in human trafficking and CSEC that technologists need to know before they build interventions:

How to Responsibly Create Technological Interventions to Address the Domestic Sex Trafficking of Minors

Some of the issues we address include:

  1. Youth often do not self-identify themselves as victims.
  2. “Survival sex” is one aspect of CSEC.
  3. Previous sexual abuse, homelessness, family violence, and foster care may influence youth’s risk of exploitation.
  4. Arresting victims undermines efforts to combat CSEC.
  5. Technologies should help disrupt criminal networks.
  6. Post-identification support should be in place before identification interventions are implemented.
  7. Evaluation, assessment, and accountability are critical for any intervention.
  8. Efforts need to be evidence-based.
  9. The cleanliness of data matters.
  10. Civil liberties are important considerations.

This high-level overview is intended to shed light on some of the most salient misconceptions and provide some key insights that might be useful for those who want to make a difference. By no means does it cover everything that experts know, but it provides some key touchstones that may be useful. It is limited to the issues that are most important for technologists, but those who are working with technologists may also find it to be valuable.

As researchers dedicated to addressing human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children, we want to make sure that the passion that innovative technologists are bringing to the table is directed in the most helpful ways possible. We hope that what we know can be of use to those who are also looking to end exploitation.

(Flickr image by Martin Gommel)

What is the Role of Technology in Human Trafficking?

Networked technologies – including the internet, mobile phones, and social media – alter how information flows and how people communicate. There is little doubt that technology is increasingly playing a role in the practices and processes surrounding human trafficking: the illegal trade of people for commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor, and other forms of modern-day slavery. Yet, little is known about costs and benefits of technology’s role. We do not know if there are more human trafficking victims as a result of technology, nor do we know if law enforcement can identify perpetrators better as a result of the traces that they leave. One thing that we do know is that technology makes many aspects of human trafficking more visible and more traceable, for better and for worse. Focusing on whether technology is good or bad misses the point; it is here to stay and it is imperative that we understand the role that it is playing. More importantly, we need to develop innovative ways of using technology to address the horrors of human trafficking.

To date, as researchers at USC have highlighted, there is little empirical research into the role that technology plays in human trafficking, let alone the commercial sexual exploitation of children. As a result, new interventions and policies are being driven by intuition, speculation, and extrapolation from highly publicized incidents. There’s no doubt that all forms human trafficking and modern day slavery are horrible, but if we actually want to help those that are victimized, we need to recognize that this is a complex issue and work to understand how the puzzle pieces fits together. My team at Microsoft Research is trying to untangle technology’s role in different facets of the human trafficking ecosystem, fully recognizing how complicated and messy it is. This is why we need your help.

Thanks to the generous support of the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit and Microsoft Research, I’m proud to announce a pool of grant money for researchers who can help us understand critical elements of the puzzle. Please forward this far and wide because we’re hoping to find scholars with the skills, domain knowledge, and passion to really help us interrogate how technology is used in human trafficking. We need anthropologists, communications scholars, computer scientists, criminologists, psychologists, sociologists, etc.

In order to help contextualize our RFP, we have prepared a framework document meant to map out one slice of the human trafficking ecosystem: “Human Trafficking and Technology: A framework for understanding the role of technology in the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the U.S.” This document is meant to articulate some of the complex issues and hard questions that we face in trying to understand technology’s role in one aspect of human trafficking. If you’re interested in this space, please be critical and challenge our thinking.

We are also looking to identify scholars who are working in this space, including graduate students and postdocs and researchers whose work is not yet published. Even if you’re not looking for grant money, please drop us a line if you’re grappling with technology’s role in human trafficking.

On a more personal note, I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to work for an organization that is willing to sponsor this line of inquiry. It’s amazing to work with colleagues who are all deeply passionate about really understanding this horrible practice in order to do what’s right. We’re all deeply committed to the importance of research and grounding our decisions in research. And we’re all deeply grateful to all of those out there who are determined to end the violence and oppression that comes with commercial sexual exploitation and modern day slavery.

Thank you! And we look forward to hearing from you!

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Image Source: Brandon Christopher Warren, Flickr