Wanted: Technology Breakthroughs to Fight Child Sex Trafficking

Posted by Samantha Doerr
Public Affairs Manager, Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit

There are few online crimes more heartbreaking than technology-facilitated crimes against children, which is why Microsoft is working with experts to advance innovation to combat them, including a research effort on child sex trafficking being introduced today by danah boyd and Rane Johnson of Microsoft Research and the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit. Through Microsoft’s previous work, we have found that research and creative collaborative efforts can have a meaningful impact on crime, and we believe the same can be true in the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Microsoft Research has released today an outline of fifteen different aspects of the child sex trafficking process fueled by U.S. demand where technology might play a role. We welcome readers to review this framework and provide feedback as we drive for scientifically sound research to understand and disrupt the problem. Also, to kick off deeper exploration of the dynamics already identified, we are issuing a $150,000 request for proposals on two of the fifteen processes – a) the role of technology in the advertising and selling of victims for exploitation and b) the purchase of victims by “johns”.

The role technology plays in both facilitating and fighting most forms of cybercrime is fairly well understood. For example, the online distribution of child pornography is reasonably well analyzed, and valuable new technology tools like PhotoDNA are emerging to help fight it. Sadly, the same is not true for human trafficking. The world has only barely scratched the surface in driving deeper understanding of the role that technology plays in facilitating modern-day slavery, let alone exploring ways that technology might be able to help fight it.

Dedicated members of law enforcement, NGOs, academia and governments worldwide are making a significant impact in this fight, but as we’ve learned in other areas of cybercrime, once technology is involved in a crime, there is also a unique and valuable role that technology experts and researchers can play to combat it. There has been some early momentum on this, with specialists from a variety of backgrounds coming together to drive progress.

In the U.S. for example, Polaris Project, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, DNA Foundation, Shared Hope, GEMS, University of Southern California, Dartmouth College, Attorneys General Rob McKenna and Kamala Harris, police departments from states like Washington and California, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Lexus-Nexus and many others are already engaging in thought-provoking and interesting possibilities. Internationally, there have been great efforts to use technology for law enforcement and corporate training, victim services, awareness and more. But so much more can be done.

There are many forms of human trafficking other than child sex trafficking – adults can also be victims of sex trafficking and labor trafficking is a significant problem – and by no means is all child sex trafficking driven by U.S. demand. This research effort aims to start somewhere with a scope that was immediately actionable, and we are hopeful that as we continue to drive deeper connections between academia, technology, advocacy, law enforcement and governments in this area, we will see new advancements never before possible in the fight against trafficking as a whole.

This problem can be complicated and daunting, but there are many reasons why we are so optimistic in the fight. We know that law enforcement today reports that gangs and organized crime increasingly get into the child sex trade because it may be less risky to traffic children than drugs, and because child traffickers’ ‘inventory’ is reusable, whereas drug inventory is not. It’s a sad phenomenon, but it also demonstrates that child sex trafficking shares the same weak point we exploit with most other forms of cybercrime DCU works on– it’s a business fueled by the promises of money and profit for criminals. While we may never wipe out trafficking completely, if we can drive up the costs and risks of ‘doing business’, we can make it a much less appealing business for traffickers.

I am incredibly lucky to get to work every day with smart, passionate leaders in this field around the world. Whether in our work to combat child exploitation or other cybercrime, we have seen firsthand how public-private partnership efforts combined with technical and legal innovation aimed at disrupting the heart of criminal operations serve as a powerful force against crime. Although the problem of trafficking is unique in many ways, I truly believe that kind of change is possible.

In recent months, I’ve had the humbling opportunity to meet women who were once young girls rented out in the sex trade and who have since transformed their lives, becoming influential leaders in a variety of fields. These survivors have not let their victimization define them, but appear to have taken their experiences as a source of strength that is part of who they are today. It is these women, and the thousands of victims of trafficking, both male and female around the world, who serve as a daily inspiration of what is possible.

For more information about what you can do to help, please visit the links from some of the organizations mentioned above. Most importantly, if you or someone you know suspect a trafficking situation, report it to appropriate authorities. In the U.S., Polaris Project runs a national hotline where any tips can be sent to 1-888-3737-888. If you are a researcher in the field, I also strongly recommend you check out the Microsoft Research site for more information about this effort as well as USC’s recent report Human Trafficking Online: The Role of Social Networking Sites and Online Classifieds.

Lastly, for anyone simply interested in staying up to speed on this and other efforts to combat digital crime, I welcome you to follow the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit on Facebook and Twitter, where we will continue to share information on breaking advances and news in the field.

Comments (1)
  1. National Association of Human Trafficking Victim Advocates www.stopslavery2012.com says:

    The National Association of Human Trafficking Victim Advocates, a grass-roots, energized and professional group of victim advocates from throughout the USA, Mexico and Canada are pleased to announce the publication of the LA JOLLA HUMAN TRAFFICKING ACCORDS.

    As a result of our annual convention attended by 29 leading advocates from throughout North America, the Association is releasing the LA JOLLA HUMAN TRAFFICKING ACCORDS – a document  “…by the advocates, on behalf of the victims we serve, to society, stating what is needed to end slavery (human trafficking) in our lifetime.”  This document is meant to be shared worldwide by all peoples motivated to end our society’s #1 human rights violation.

    The Association also determined the Top 5 needs to accomplish our goal of providing more effective human trafficking victim-support services are:

    1- More targeted funding of programs and services that work, by victim advocates seeking to be more effective and collaborative.

    2- Education and Awareness must be increased as to the scope of the problem and the proposed solutions – to all members of society (external) and within the advocacy community (internal).

    3- Increasing the protection of at-risk populations and the rescuing of victims.

    4- Increasing the collaboration between all vested parties to increase the legal, housing and social services available to today’s victims and tomorrow’s survivors.

    5- More research to provide evidence-based data to help validate the types and quantity of services needed.

    To inquire, contribute and join us in the fight against slavery in 2012, please contact:

    Phil Cenedella, Executive Director

    National Association of Human Trafficking Victim Advocates





    November 4, 2011

    WHEREAS… modern day slavery exists today in the form of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in greater numbers than at any time in our history.*

    WE THE PEOPLE… and the National Association of Human Trafficking Victim Advocates hereby declare:

    * All peoples, regardless of race, religion, gender, age, nationality, or social group, have the right to live freely without fear of exploitation.

    * Due to the increased demand for minor victims of labor and sexual exploitation, all children are entitled to society’s increased protection.

    * Due to the fact that human trafficking is the fastest growing crime in our world today, this issue needs urgent attention and full collaboration among all service providers, law enforcement agencies, media outlets, community leaders, governmental agencies, and citizens.

    * Legislation to enhance, and close loopholes, in the current laws against human trafficking need to reflect the severity of this heinous crime.

    * Victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation should be given enhanced professional rehabilitation and healing for the traumatic consequences of their enslavement.

    * Increased funding focused on programs that work should be the priority of all government organizations and private sector donors so as to effectively fight the demand for forced slave labor and commercialized sex and to help abolish slavery in our lifetime.

    * Recognizing that modern slavery is no longer a hidden tragedy, priority needs to given to educating the public, law enforcement, transportation and service industries, the media, and social service providers on how to help stop it.

    * All human traffickers and their clients (those that buy others for sex / those that force others to work in slave conditions) need to know society does not accept this behavior and we are increasing our efforts to stop this madness.

    * To today’s victims, and tomorrow’s survivors, please know that we are here to help – call the national hotline at 888-3737-888 or email us at help@stopslavery2012.com

    IN CONCLUSION … this La Jolla Human Trafficking Accords document should be freely distributed and promoted throughout the world in order for all peoples to work together to finally end this travesty in our society.

    * 2011 U.S. State Department TIP report and the National Association of Attorneys General

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