Technology: The complex, critical frontier in the fight against child sex trafficking

On Monday, I had the privilege of participating in an @Microsoft Conversation at Microsoft’s Silicon Valley campus with leading academics and experts working to better understand – in scientifically measurable ways – the role that technology plays in the issue of domestic minor sex trafficking.

The discussion centered not only on the role that technology might play in facilitating these crimes, but also the role that technology might be able to help fight them. Perhaps most importantly, the discussion highlighted the remarkable lack of socio-technological academic research in an area where such research is so desperately needed to inform technology and public policy decisions being made every day on these issues, and the urgent need for further cooperation to fill that gap.

Dr. Mark Latonero, Professor Mary G. Leary, Dr. Anna Shavers, Dr. Susan McIntyre, Dr. Nicole Bryan and Dr. Sasha Poucki participate in an @Microsoft Conversation at Microsoft’s Silicon Valley campus on Monday to discuss the role that technology plays in the issue of domestic minor sex trafficking.

We were honored to have Dr. Mark Latonero, research director at the University of Southern California Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy and a reputable academic expert on the issue, moderate a panel of researchers, which included four of the six academic teams sponsored by Microsoft’s grant for academic research in this area. I’d like to thank Dr. Nicole Bryan and Dr. Sasha Poucki of Montclair State University; Dr. Susan McIntyre, advocate, counselor and researcher from Calgary, Alberta; Professor Mary G. Leary of the Catholic University of America and Professor Anna Shavers of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for the thoughtful panel discussion.

(Not present at the event, but also critical to this effort are Dr. Jennifer Musto of Wellesley College and Dr. Kimberly Mitchell of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center.) Although the Microsoft-sponsored research projects with these universities are in varying stages of completion, all of these researchers are already producing valuable data and insights that, along with other emerging research efforts at Carnegie Mellon University and elsewhere, could help inform potential interventions and technologies to help combat the online sex trafficking fight more broadly in the future.

Also, knowing the unique work that California State Attorney General Kamala Harris has been doing with respect to technological approaches to this problem, we were quite lucky to have Jeffrey Tsai, Special Assistant Attorney General join us to provide important perspective on the challenges and opportunities available as further progress is made on this issue.

Child sex trafficking is a particularly complex issue with a lot of unknowns, and interventionists in particular need to be sensitive of the potential for unintended consequences of their efforts. We believe that if companies and organizations across many different sectors put our collective energies together and leverage our various skills and resources, we can make a difference. However, it’s imperative that all of us involved in this fight engage with each other and share the valuable data and insights we’re learning. This event was intended to be one small step in furtherance of that goal. For examples of the learnings that such research efforts have already been able to provide to inform technology efforts in this space, I recommend:

· Addressing Human Trafficking: Guidelines for Technological Interventions – http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2013/04/08/technology-csec.html

· How to Responsibly Create Technological Interventions to Address the Domestic Sex Trafficking of Minors – http://www.danah.org/papers/TechnologistsCSEC.pdf

· Human Trafficking and Technology: A framework for understanding the role of technology in the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the U.S. – http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/collaboration/focus/education/htframework-2011.pdf

· The Technology and Human Trafficking Initiative: a project of the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy – https://technologyandtrafficking.usc.edu/

The audience for yesterday’s event included a fascinating mix of representation across technology industry, government and advocacy stakeholders who agreed wholeheartedly that this is a cross-sector issue that simply cannot be addressed by one organization or sector alone. Child sex trafficking is a hot button issue being discussed worldwide, but certainly heavily among policymakers, experts and organizations in California and Silicon Valley. As such, this engagement was both timely and geographically relevant to ensure ongoing dialogue about the issue within the industry, and to foster broader discussions about how the many groups focused on this problem can help solve it.

Lastly, I would like to thank my colleagues in Microsoft Research, the Microsoft Technology and Human Rights Center, the Microsoft Innovation and Policy Center and our Silicon Valley team for their joint support for yesterday’s event, without whom this simply would not have been possible. This @Microsoft Conversation is just one of many Microsoft has hosted around these efforts, and we look forward to supporting similar discussions in the future to further advance the fight against child sex trafficking. Microsoft remains committed to protecting children from technology-facilitated crimes, and it is our hope that the research gleaned over the coming months will reveal vital information to help us develop effective interventions to combat human trafficking. We will continue to share information as this research and other interesting progress is made in this space moving forward.

For more information about the problem of human trafficking, or to find hotline information to report trafficking, visit http://www.polarisproject.org/. To stay up-to-date on the latest developments on the fight against cybercrime and child sex trafficking, please follow the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Author

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