Harnessing the Power of Technology to Fight Human Trafficking

Guest Post by Professor Mary Leary, Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America

Human trafficking is a social problem as complex as it is horrific.  Often referred to as “modern day slavery,” the effect of this victimization is enormous.  It encompasses a crime that is both domestic and global, affects both men and women, injures both adults and children, and occurs concomitantly in both public and hidden spaces.

Similar to its efforts to combat online child exploitation, which led to its successful collaboration with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the creation of Photo DNA, Microsoft has begun partnering with leaders in the field  to combat child sex trafficking.  While a body of research is beginning to emerge regarding this horrible phenomenon, much remains to be learned.  Notwithstanding that reality, there are at least two points regarding child sex trafficking on which all would agree.  First, technology is playing an increasingly significant role in the commission of child sex trafficking – and technology also offers new ways to help fight these crimes.  Second, the solution to combatting this complex crime is multi-disciplinary and will demand leaders of all sectors of society to join together to counter this assault on our children at every front.

On July 24, Microsoft took an important step in its initiative to combat human trafficking by convening a “generator” discussion in Washington, D.C.  Generators are facilitated sessions designed to find opportunities for technology interventions within specific issue areas.  Consistent with its continuing work with the White House Office of Science and  Technology, Microsoft convened this generator as a forum for many of the nation’s leaders in the fight against child sex trafficking to join together and discuss ways in which technology is used and can be harnessed to disrupt child sex trafficking. 

The facilitated discussion, organized by Dan Bross, Senior Director of Corporate Citizenship, and Courtney Gregoire, Senior Attorney in the Digital Crimes Unit, brought together representatives from law enforcement, non-governmental organizations, academia, federal authorities, and private industry to brainstorm about possible areas of focus for Microsoft as it moves forward in its commitment.  I had the opportunity to participate in this important meeting.  As one of six recipients of funding from Microsoft to conduct research regarding this issue, it was truly an honor to be able to share the results of my work with such a group of diverse leaders in the field.  I presented the participants my findings regarding the role of technology in child sex trafficking cases, which were recently published in the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy.

The bulk of the day was spent garnering information from these diverse actors regarding the manifestations and characteristics of child sex trafficking and the need for these groups to work together to combat it.  The participants, encouraged to think “outside the box,” generated several areas of potential focus. Although these organizations may take different positions on some issues, they found much common ground in their analysis and creative ideas for solutions. These are now being processed by Microsoft to determine next steps in contributing to a comprehensive response. 

Technology has, unfortunately, played a dual role in child exploitation.  Yet it can – and must – also play a role in disrupting this crime.  All who participated in the discussion in Washington are committed to that disruption and hopefully moved us closer to its realization.