“The time has come to harness the power of technology to go after those using it to enslave others,” California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris
The rapid expansion of the Internet is being used to facilitate human trafficking, yet it also can be harnessed to monitor and combat this form of modern-day slavery. This is the finding of a new report from the Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP) at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
The result of a year-long investigation by CCLP research director Mark Latonero, Ph.D., and his team, Human Trafficking Online: The Role of Social Networking Sites and Online Classifieds focuses on how technology and online tools can be used to prevent trafficking, protect victims and prosecute perpetrators.
“Data mining, mapping and advanced analytics can be developed to support law enforcement and other organizations in fighting human trafficking,” says Latonero. “The report also describes how mobile phone applications, crowdsourcing and other new technologies might be used to help victims.” Many of these innovations were examined with expertise provided by Professor Eduard Hovy and colleagues at the Information Sciences Institute at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering.
While it is difficult to quantify the extent of human trafficking on the Internet, this research establishes that online criminal exploitation of trafficked victims is an undeniable fact.
“We must be united in the fight against human trafficking. The USC Annenberg Report demonstrates that the modern practice of human trafficking has, to a large extent, migrated online,” said California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris. “The time has come to harness the power of technology to go after those using it to enslave others.”
Just as the Internet has given traffickers easier means of exploiting their victims to a wider audience of “johns,” online technologies also offer new ways to combat human trafficking, according to the report. For example, online communications from or to traffickers leave behind traces in cyberspace. This information provides important glimpses into criminal behavior, techniques and patterns. And if anti-trafficking investigators can assemble enough of it, they can take specific actions to help victims and prosecute traffickers.
A common starting point for investigators is combing through photos and online advertisements searching for potential victims of sex trafficking, particularly girls who seem younger than their advertised ages, the report reveals.
William H. Dutton, professor of Internet studies and director of the Oxford Internet Institute agrees. “Researchers cannot afford to ignore the dark side of the Internet,” he says. “This report explains how the Internet can be a proactive tool for detecting, locating and addressing human trafficking. It provides valuable guidelines for policymakers and practitioners that are based on multi-disciplinary research extending to a clear legal and technical understanding of how to go after the traffickers.”
The U.S. State Department estimates — about 12.3 million adults and children “in forced labor, bonded labor and forced prostitution around the world.”
The worst rates of the problem are in Asia, where the U.N. Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking estimates that more than 50 percent of slavery victims are found. The State Department says that in Asia, there are three human trafficking victims for every 1,000 people — three times the rates elsewhere.