USC team fights human trafficking with technology

Technology can both ignite and combat human trafficking.  Research teams worldwide, like Mark Latonero‘s at the Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy at the University of Southern California, are working to develop technologies to fight human trafficking and abolish modern-day slavery.  Latonero, research director and deputy managing director at the Annenberg Center, and his colleagues at the USC Information Sciences Instituteare developing technologies that disrupt the social dynamics of the trafficking trade and are creating technological platforms that leverage real-time data to provide actionable information for counter-trafficking efforts.  He and his team recently produced two major reports on human trafficking online, Human Trafficking Online: The Role of Social Networking Sites and Online Classifieds and Technology and Human Trafficking: The Rise of Mobile and the Diffusion of Technology-Facilitated Trafficking.

Mark Latonero, research director and deputy managing director at the Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy at the University of Southern California, is developing technologies to combat human trafficking.

In a recent interview with me, Latonero explained the negative and positive affects technology has on human trafficking, how real-time data can be used to track and identify victims, and how this data might be able to help prosecute those who buy and sell victims of sexual exploitation.

Melissa Grace Hoon for Abolish Slavery Coalition: What is technology’s role in human trafficking today?

Mark Latonero: In modern society that we live in today, we find that it is increasingly the case that much of our social lives are being mediated or facilitated in an online environment, or through technology with the use of mobile phones, online websites, etc.  Specifically speaking of activities involving human rights issues such as human trafficking, a computer or network of computers or devices bring us into the middle of big social issues. Technology can help in organizing protests and in raising awareness to help combat issues like human trafficking.  Computers or networks of computers are in the middle of the greatest human rights issues of our day. Technology brings a new dimension to human rights issues with both positive and negative aspects.

Abolish Slavery Coalition: What negative affect does technology have on human trafficking?

Mark Latonero: Negative aspects include online networks that press upon human trafficking issues, specifically in that anyone can sell anything online to a huge audience that they’ve never had before across great geographies and transcending boundaries.  The ability to connect with a group of people and have an audience is a fascinating thing.  In regards to human trafficking online, we have these sections that deal with commercial sex, like escorts.  What we’ve found is that some of these ads are in fact human trafficking, defined as the sexual exploitation of coerced individuals or of children under the age of 18.  The online universe is exacerbating the ability for pimps and traffickers to advertise across time and space, and distance and boundaries.

Abolish Slavery Coalition: What positive affect does technology have on human trafficking?

Mark Latonero: The positive side is the visibility that technology produces.  Any soliciting site, producing good or bad activity – whether through the sale of furniture or concert tickets, or sexual exploitation – makes such activity visibleVisibility is arguably the most important aspect to consider when talking about human trafficking and online networks.Visibility gives many people the chance to see what’s being talked about and what’s being sold, giving researchers and law enforcement a window into something we’ve never before seen in real-time.  Visibility can also be viewed negatively, because it can expose and sell more victims across a greater geography.  Ultimately, we look at visibility and see the social dynamics of sexual exploitation unfold.

Abolish Slavery Coalition: How can real-time data produce actionable information, or prosecutory evidence, for counter-trafficking efforts?

Mark Latonero:Buying and selling victims of human trafficking online leaves a trace, historical record or digital fingerprint.  We collect those traces as data.  We store it and monitor it, and now we have a big dataset of the potential exploitation of human beings, which we’ve never had before.  You can imagine what it’d be like without computers to collect data like this.  Prior to the use of technology in human trafficking, the buying and selling of victims was an invisible and clandestine activity.  Now we are using advanced computer techniques that anyone with a computer actually has the ability to also use.  Initially, we were dealing with big, unorganized data with a bunch of photographs, phone numbers and text.  We take these analytics and data, and analyze in terms of location and time by extracting certain language used in human trafficking posts to get an idea of where these posts are coming from.  For the first time, something that was once invisible is now visible.  This visibility is directly placed into the hands of experts and professionals who are able to help human trafficking victims.

Latonero and his team’s recent report, Human Trafficking Online: The Role of Social Networking Sites and Online Classifieds, shows the role of social networking sites and online classified ads in facilitating human trafficking.

Abolish Slavery Coalition: How has the data you’ve collected helped determine who human trafficking victims are, who is buying and selling victims, and the location of exploitation?

Mark Latonero: When we refer to social dynamics in terms of technology and human trafficking, we are largely talking about the recruitment, advertisement and control over the victims, which is what we call the “push-and-pull” factor.  We can start looking at these advertising approaches to determine social dynamics of victims, such as race, ethnicity, gender, age and geographic location. For example, we can look in Orange County and see which areas are broken down with certain ethnicities and the price point of the victims.  We then begin to understand the business aspects of the human trafficking industry, which helps us understand a variety of things regarding social dynamics, including how individuals are being priced, and the phone number and name attached to people.  This information helps track movement.  For example, if a victim was trafficked from San Diego to Los Angeles to Las Vegas to San Francisco, those trying to identify and rescue this victim can more easily track her exact location, making human trafficking visible.

Abolish Slavery Coalition: Who has access to this data?

Mark Latonero: Both data and access to the data is valuable for professionals, such as law enforcement and NGOs, who are active in anti-trafficking for investigatory purposes.  All or most of our data is collected from public sites.  We are just now figuring out how to build the database to a point where it will be most useful to investigators.  We know it can be useful for groups or individuals such as law enforcement and NGOs to track victims, who, for example, were in a shelter but then left.  It is our hope that our technologies will be useful for law enforcement and others who have a pressing need to locate or track a potential victim in order to find the best way to help them.  Because human trafficking does not respect borders and boundaries, it is our hope that our technologies and other technologies like ours will be used locally, and at state, national and international levels.  Technology has made human trafficking even more porous in not respecting boundaries and also more fluid in many ways.  Given that human trafficking traverses global boundaries, we hope these technologies will be used by many different people in many different geographies in order to combat this crime – a crime that does not respect jurisdiction and flows all over.  It would help to be used across traditional boundaries and shared amongst various groups of people who can help.

Also, we are very careful in handling this data.  There is only a subset of what we’re collecting; there is a lot of other information out there that is not relevant to us concerning the commercial sexualizaiton of children.  We are careful to protect and not exploit people’s information.  The flip-side of collecting this data is that there are other human rights to consider, such as privacy rights.  We wouldn’t want data to be used in any way to encroach on people’s civil liberties.

Latonero and his team’s 2012 report, Technology and Human Trafficking: The Rise of Mobile and the Diffusion of Technology-Facilitated Trafficking, reveal how those involved in human trafficking have been quick to adapt to the 21st-century global landscape.

Abolish Slavery Coalition: How did this project come into fruition?

Mark Latonero: We wanted to help make lives better for people who are of the most vulnerable population – specifically, children who are sexually exploited through human trafficking.  We wanted to study technology and the cause-and-effect of its social dynamics regarding human trafficking.  This project combines those two goals – through studying technology’s role in human trafficking, hopefully we’ll succeed in improving the lives of children and others who have been victims of sexual exploitation.

Abolish Slavery Coalition: Who are you collaborating with on this project?

Mark Latonero: This project was originally developed in 2010 in coordination with the U.S. Department of State.  The U.S. Department of State had a pressing interest in the use of technology with trafficking in persons.  We are also working with the Office of Innovation, California’s Office of the Attorney General, NGOs, federal law enforcement and others who feel as strongly as we do about what can be done to combat sex trafficking. One of our first meetings that convened around this topic at this level brought in multi-sector approaches, including U.S. government, academics, NGOs, technologists and advocates against human trafficking, which merged the private sector and tech sector.  By bringing these folks together, we saw a great need for something like the development of these technologies, and we saw that there was a huge gap in information and technology concerning human trafficking.  We saw a connect in consumer behavior strategies and our techniques with data analytics, which proved how human rights and technologies wrap together and essentially are dealing with the same thing – sex trafficking.  Now we can essentially disrupt sex trafficking activity.  Now, two-and-a-half years after our first meeting concerning this project, we have formed partnerships and collaborations with private sectors, such as Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit, and government agencies and groups, such as the California’s Attorney General’s Office and federal law enforcement.

Abolish Slavery Coalition: What breakthroughs has this project seen thus far?

Mark Latonero: Our multi-sector meetings are evidence themselves of a breakthrough in this project.  These meetings bring people together at federal and state levels.  This multi-sector collaboration is the key way to get people to work together on this.  For instance, these meetings bring tech firms into the room that had never even heard of sex trafficking.  Crime is happening with the use of their technologies so they’re interested in what’s going on.  These meetings include human trafficking experts and the people behind the tech businesses.  All of these people alike want to understand what they can do to combat this crime.

Abolish Slavery Coalition: What challenges has the project faced?

Mark Latonero: The key challenges that this project needs has faced are social challenges, moreso than technological challenges.For instance, human trafficking facilitated by technologies move victims from state to state and region to region.  We have technologies that track that movement, but to get officials from different areas to coordinate information about potential victims is a huge challenge concerning different laws and so forth.  Not everyone is accustomed to prosecuting under human trafficking laws, even at the federal and state levels.  Integrating NGOs and all the other folks who want to help combat this crime is a huge challenge.  Also, coordinating these groups with the incorporation of technology is a challenge in itself.

About the Author

Melissa Grace HoonMelissa Grace Hoon is the Managing Editor for the Abolish Slavery Coalition. She is a victim advocate and a human rights journalist with a Master’s degree in American studies where she focused on slavery, gendered violence and victimization. She is a freelance reporter for the Orange County Register and volunteers with the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force.

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  1. Pingback: USC team fights human trafficking with technology | Abolish Slavery Now

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