University of Southern California USC

Current Research on Technology and Trafficking

The CCLP 2011 report[1] reviewed the existing research on the role of the Internet and technology in facilitating human trafficking and recommended a number of research questions to consider. Since then, the literature in this area has grown substantially from various multi-sector approaches. Technology and human trafficking have also garnered more attention from government agencies,[2] nongovernmental organizations,[3] the private sector,[4] and academics.[5] Studies on the use of landline phones, computer devices, and handheld and other mobile devices have provided a view of sex trafficking in modern-day society. The following review of current research, while not exhaustive, provides highlights of the spectrum of research under way on technology and sex trafficking.

U.S. government-issued reports are only beginning to include discussions on the role of technology in human trafficking. The 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report released by the U.S. Department of State includes some brief mentions of technologies used both to facilitate and combat trafficking. [6] Two reports by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) released in 2011 do focus on technologies related issues. The first, entitled, “National Overview of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Efforts,” examines law enforcement efforts to address sex trafficking demand.[7] The second study, “Identifying Challenges to Improve the Investigation and Prosecution of State and Local Human Trafficking Cases,” discusses various difficulties law enforcement faces, including technology-related challenges.[8] NIJ found that technology-facilitated reverse stings are the third most commonly used tactic nationwide, having been piloted as early as 1995.[9] Researchers analyzed a set of 140 closed cases from across the U.S. and found that 85% were sex trafficking cases, 27% of which used the Internet as a trafficking tool.[10] NIJ also found that state laws on sex trafficking positively impacted the rate at which sex trafficking victims were identified via the Internet.[11]

In August 2010, the Department of Justice’s Project Safe Childhood[12] released its National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction.[13] The threat assessment portion of the report showed increases over the past decade in cyber crimes involving the sexual exploitation of children,[14] including child pornography, online enticement of children for sexual purposes, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and child sex tourism. The report also outlined the Department of Justice’s strategy for addressing the cyber threat of child sexual exploitation. A new national strategy is due for submission to Congress this year.[15]

Evidence-based academic research on technology and human trafficking is also growing. Researchers at CCLP and the USC Information Sciences Institute (2012) have published research on the collection and analysis of digital data on the open Internet in order to identify potential cases of human trafficking, specifically the sex trafficking of minors.[16]

Through their work at Microsoft Research, boyd, Casteel, Thakor, and Johnson (2011) have provided a framework for research into the role of technology in human trafficking, specifically the domestic demand for commercial sexual exploitation of minors in the United States.[17] This framework recognizes the dearth of empirical research on human trafficking and technology’s role, but notes that “technology makes many aspects of human trafficking more visible and more traceable, for better or for worse. … We do not know if there are more human trafficking victims as a result of technology, nor do we know if law enforcement can identify perpetrators better as a result of the traces that they leave.”[18] The researchers also caution against technological solutions without full understanding of the potential unintended consequences, “[a]s a result, new interventions and policies are being driven by intuition, speculation, and extrapolation from highly publicized incidents.”[19] The framework examines the ways in which technology has impacted the human trafficking ecosystem, identifying 15 facets of the problem and a set of potential issues associated with each.[20] The present report explores several of the facets listed in the framework, including Prevention and Education; Identification and Reporting of Victims and Perpetrators; Advertising and Selling of Victims; Searching for and Purchasing Victims by “Johns”; and Political and Policy Activities.

Researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire have led several research initiatives on DMST, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and Internet-facilitated juvenile prostitution over the last decade. Finkelhor and Ormond (2004) mined data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) to present findings that suggest important insights into DMST, including information on age ranges, gender disparities, treatment by police as offenders and/or victims, and independent or group structures.[21] In a 2010 study, Mitchell, Finkelhor, and Wolak found that 54% of juveniles who were sexually exploited by a third party found clients through the Internet (20%), through an escort or call service (26%), or at an establishment (9%).[22] Of the cases involving a third-party exploiter, 100% of third parties were pimps or other controlling persons.[23] In 54% of the cases, law enforcement viewed the juveniles as victims, and in 16% as both delinquents and victims.[24] In 2011, Mitchell, Jones, Finkelhor, and Wolak found that an estimated 569 arrests for Internet-facilitated commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred in the United States in 2006.[25] Of those cases, 36% involved those who used the Internet to purchase or sell access to identified children for sexual purposes.

Wells, Mitchell, and Ji (2012) have examined how Internet facilitation influences law enforcement perspectives on juvenile prostitution cases and characteristics and found that Internet-facilitated juvenile prostitution cases were more likely to involve younger juveniles and an exploiter that was a family member or acquaintance, in contrast with juvenile prostitution cases that did not involve Internet facilitation.[26]

Foot and Vanek (2012) have examined the effects of technology-facilitated observations and reporting of suspected human trafficking.[27] They note that “Suspicious Activity Report­ing (SAR) programs [and] new formats for relaying potential crime information to police (via social media tools)” necessitate that “law enforcement lead­ers must be aware of this changing landscape and the breadth of new potential reporters of crime.”[28] Foot also collaborated on research with a team at Georgia Tech regarding the ways in which community-based organizations respond to human trafficking by utilizing technologies to strengthen and expand their networks.[29] Stoll, Foot, and Edwards identified three categories of technology-supported activities that assist these networks in combating sex trafficking.[30] They also found “that while different technologies are suited toward supporting different aspects of connectedness, gaps may exist in how social media tools support connectedness in civic networks.”[31] These gaps, they say, are due to the individual nature of technologies such as email, Facebook, and Twitter, and, the authors suggest, “more group-centric technologies can be leveraged to create connectedness in civic networks.”[32]

Although greater attention has focused on technology-facilitated sex trafficking, gaps in legal responses are increasingly evident. Kunze (2010) conducted an assessment of laws, international agreements, and other policies relating to Internet-facilitated sex trafficking. She found that the methods and means of online trafficking are developing at much faster rates than laws that seek to protect trafficking victims. Kunze argues for international laws prohibiting the use of the Internet for advertising and selling sex trafficking victims and for locating traffickers who utilize the Internet for victimization, “[I]t is vital that the international community adopt both domestic legislation and international treaty provisions to target sexual predators and human traffickers who use technology and the Internet to enslave minors and adults alike.”[33]

We found little research on the role of technology in labor trafficking. Recent reports from the Asia Pacific Migration Network and Business for Social Responsibility highlighted the use of technology in dubious recruiting practices for migrant labor, yet did not investigate human trafficking claims per se.[34] Todres (2012) examines the private sector’s role in combating human trafficking in light of California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act.[35] This law, which passed in 2011 and obligated compliance by January 2012, requires qualifying corporations to display prominently on their websites the measures they are taking to eliminate human trafficking from their supply chains.[36] Todres notes:

Anti-trafficking advocates can capitalize on the private sector’s skill set and its own incentives to innovate to improve initiatives to combat human trafficking. That might include innovations in technology or other improvements in safety or efficiency that reduce the pressure to exploit vulnerable individuals.[37]

This review of current literature suggests that researchers are beginning to pay closer attention to the role of technology in sex trafficking; however, further investigation into technology and labor trafficking is clearly needed.



[1]               Ibid., 14.

[2]               The President’s Interagency Task Force on Human Trafficking has embarked on an initiative to provide a variety of online anti-trafficking tools, including online training modules for law enforcement, technology-based components for the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and technological capacity building for various intersecting industries. Annual Meeting of the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (March 15, 2012) U.S. Department of State. Retrieved August 10, 2012, from www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2012/03/185905.htm.

[3]               Mekong Club and Motherapp have partnered with the UN Inter-Agency Partnership on Human Trafficking to develop a mobile phone application that will address law enforcement’s heavily documented inability to identify human trafficking victims due to language barriers. Boyd, Z. Personal communication with Matthew Friedman, July 18, 2012.

[4]               For example, both Microsoft Research and Google Ideas held conferences in July 2012 that highlighted the role of technology-facilitated sex trafficking.

[5]               Academic research teams such as the Crimes Against Children Research Center at University of New Hampshire, Scott Cunningham and Todd Kendall at Baylor University, and students such as Emily Kennedy at Carnegie Mellon University, are leading this exploratory field.

[6]               See 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report. In addition, at the March 15, 2012, Annual Meeting of the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Raj Shah said that USAID has developed “a new counter-trafficking policy … [that] prioritizes investments in technologies, like mapping platforms, mobile applications, and other innovations.” See www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2012/03/185905.htm.

[7]               Shively, M., Kliorys, K., Wheeler, K., & Hunt, D. (2012) National Overview of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Efforts. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

[8]               Farrell, A., McDevitt, J., Pfeffer, R., Fahy, S., Owens, C., Dank, M., et al. (2012) Identifying Challenges to Improve the Investigation and Prosecution of State and Local Human Trafficking Cases. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

[9]               Shively et al. (2012), p. 19. An interesting observation on reverse stings suggests that during traditional street reverse stings, johns post warnings in online forums, often with descriptions of the decoy and officers involved.

[10]             The majority of victims are identified via tips from family members, community members, NGOs, or hotlines. Farrell et al. (2012), p. 43.

[11]             Thirty % of sex trafficking cases in states that lack trafficking legislation were identified via the Internet, as opposed to 20% of cases in states with basic legislation on human trafficking. Farley et al. (2012), p. 46.

[12]             The Providing Resources, Officers, and Technology to Eradicate Cyber Threats to Our Children Act of 2008 (the “PROTECT Our Children Act”) mandates that the department complete a threat assessment of the magnitude of technology-facilitated child exploitation.

[13]             Department of Justice (2010) National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from www.justice.gov/psc/publications.html.

[14]             Ibid., 2–5.

[15]             “The [Providing Resources, Officers, and Technology to Eradicate Cyber Threats to Our Children Act of 2008 (the ‘PROTECT Our Children Act’] also requires the Department to submit a report on the National Strategy (the ‘National Strategy’ or ‘Report’) to Congress every other year,” Ibid., 1.

[16]             Wang, H., Philpot, A., Hovy, E., Congxing, C., Latonero, M., & Metzler, D. (2012) Data integration from open Internet sources to combat sex trafficking of minors. Proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery – Digital Government Conference, College Park, Maryland.

[17]             boyd et al. (2011).

[18]             Ibid., 1, 3.

[19]             Ibid., 1.

[20]             The identified facets include Prevention and Education; Recruitment and Abduction of Victims; Transit, Housing and Everyday Control of Victims by “Pimps”; Retention of Victims by “Pimps”; Advertising and Selling of Victims; Searching for and Purchasing Victims by “Johns”; Money Exchange, Money Laundering; Underground Partnerships and Organized Crime Syndicates; Identification and Reporting of Victims and Perpetrators; Investigation of Illegal Activities; Rehabilitation and Recovery for Survivors; Prosecution of Perpetrators; Rehabilitation for and Control of Perpetrators; Political and Policy Activities; Anti-Trafficking Partnerships. Ibid., 3.

[21]             The study was based on data from “a limited number of cases from the 76 agencies in 13 states that are represented in NIBRS.” Finkelhor, D. and Ormrod, R. K., Crimes Against Children Resource Center (2004) Prostitution of juveniles: Patterns from NIBRS. Juvenile Justice Bulletin – NCJ203946 (pp. 1–12). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/jvq/CV67.pdf, p. 9.

[22]             Mitchell, K. J., Finkelhor, D., & Wolak, J., Crimes Against Children Resource Center (2010) Conceptualizing juvenile prostitution as child maltreatment: Findings from the national juvenile prostitution survey. Child Maltreatment, 15(1): 18–36. p. 26. Retrieved from www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV186.pdf.

[23]             Ibid., 28.

[24]             Ibid., 29.

[25]             Mitchell, K. J., Jones, L. M., Finkelhor, D., & Wolak, J., Crimes Against Children Resource Center (2011) Internet-facilitated commercial sexual exploitation of children: Findings from a nationally representative sample of law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 23(1): 43–71. Retrieved from www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV201.pdf.

[26]             Wells, M. Mitchell, K. J., & Ji, K. (2012): Exploring the Role of the Internet in Juvenile Prostitution Cases Coming to the Attention of Law Enforcement, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 21:3, 327–42.

[27]             According to Foot & Vanek, “The growth of anti-trafficking MANGOs (mobilizing/advocacy NGOs) across the U.S. is attributable [in part to] the growth of cause-promoting social media platforms such as Change.org, and issue-oriented uses of general social networking sites such as Facebook.”

[28]             Foot, K. & Vanek, J. (2012) Toward Constructive Engagement Between Local Law Enforcement and Mobilization and Advocacy Nongovernmental Organizations About Human Trafficking: Recommendations for Law Enforcement Executives. Law Enforcement Executive Forum, 12(1), 1–11.

[29]             Stoll, J., Foot, K., & Edwards, W. K. (2012) Between Us and Them: Building Connectedness Within Civic Networks. Proceedings of the ACM 2012 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 1, 237–40.

[30]             The three activities are raising basic awareness, enabling connections, and reinforcing connections. The information communication technologies (ICTs) that support these activities include mobile phones, email, custom websites, and social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

[31]             Stoll et al. (2012), p. 240.

[32]             Ibid.

[33]             Kunze, E. I. “Sex trafficking via the Internet: How international agreements address the problem and fail to go far enough.” The Journal of High Technology Law, July 2010: 241+. Academic OneFile. Web. July 25, 2012. p. 253.

[34]             Asia Pacific Migration Network (2012) AP-Magnet Discussion Paper, based on an online discussion – Improving and Regulating Recruitment Practices in Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok: International Labour Organization. Morgan, G., Nolan, C., & Ediger, L. (2011) Step Up: Improving Migrant Worker Recruitment in Indonesia, San Francisco: Business for Social Responsibility, p. 19. Migration for Development (2011) E-discussion on: Migrant Workers and Recruitment Processes. Retrieved July 29, 2012, from www.migration4development.org/content/e-discussion-migrant-workers-and-recruitment-processes.

[35]             Todres, J. (2012) The Private Sector’s Pivotal Role in Combating Human Trafficking, California Law Review Circuit, 3: 190–208.

[36]             Cal. Civ. Code § 1714.43; Cal. Tax Code § 19547.5(S.B. 657).

[37]             Todres (2012).