Wanted: Technology Breakthroughs to Fight Child Sex Trafficking

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.

About the Author

Director, Public Affairs & Child Protection, Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit