University of Southern California USC

Guiding Principles for Technological Interventions in Human Trafficking

  1. The ultimate beneficiaries of any technological intervention should be the victims and survivors of human trafficking.

    Throughout the technological design and implementation process, decisions should be guided by a single question: How will the technology maximize the benefit and minimize the harm to victims and survivors of trafficking?

    Developers and users in this space should examine the inherent risks that arise when technology is applied to complex social problems. While benefits may appear clear at first, experts should be consulted to evaluate whether tools have the potential to cause inadvertent harm. For example, protections should be built into any technological intervention to ensure that it is not used to prosecute minor trafficking victims. An analysis of potential risks and benefits to victims and survivors of trafficking should be the primary task before planning and deploying technological interventions.

  2. Successful implementation of anti-trafficking technologies requires cooperation among actors across government, nongovernmental, and private sectors, sharing information and communicating in a coordinated manner.

    Technological interventions in anti-trafficking efforts necessitate collaboration across sectors. Addressing challenges such as competing missions, values, and limited  resources among actors would be a major step toward implementing technological solutions. Trafficking online in particular requires coordination of efforts to avoid inefficiencies, for example, when a proposed technology is already in use by parallel organizations or when technologies can readily be adapted to fit anti-trafficking needs. The private sector, academics, and the technology community can serve as valuable resources for creative innovations that can be tailored to anti-trafficking efforts, including technologies to facilitate information sharing.

  3. Private-sector technology firms should recognize that their services and networks are being exploited by traffickers and take steps to innovate and develop anti-trafficking initiatives through their technologies and policies.

    Social networking sites, online classified sites, and technology firms provide Internet services that criminals are using to facilitate domestic and international trafficking in persons. Yet, as innovation leaders, the private sector is uniquely positioned to  exercise considerable influence in anti-trafficking efforts. While Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides a “safe harbor” that immunizes providers of interactive computer services when content is created by third-party users, these companies should acknowledge their social responsibility and assume an active role in combating trafficking on their sites. Developing strategies to incentivize the private sector to act in the public interest is a unique challenge in this area.

  4. Continuous involvement is necessary to ensure that tools are user-centric and refined over time to most effectively respond to shifts in technology and trafficking.

    User-centered design principles should aim to improve functionality and usability by focusing on the particular needs of users of anti-trafficking technologies. Law enforcement, NGOs, service providers, and the public each have particular needs based on technological literacy, class, and language, among other factors.

    Furthermore, technological interventions must be supported by individuals committed to sustaining the technology over time. Data mining and analysis might help collect evidence of potential trafficking behavior, but there must be a “human in the loop,” providing expert feedback, evaluating data, and making informed decisions. If users become dependent on a technology and that technology is not maintained or is discontinued after initial enthusiasm wears off, the consequences will be harmful for future anti-trafficking efforts. Similarly, if a tool proves useful in anti-trafficking efforts, its long-term effectiveness is not guaranteed since traffickers might adapt their behavior to avoid detection. Only with vigilant observation, support, and feedback can anti-trafficking technologies retain their usefulness.

  5. Technological interventions should account for the range of human rights potentially impacted by the use of advanced technologies.

    Technologies used in anti-trafficking efforts should be carefully tailored to avoid recklessly encroaching upon fundamental rights such as privacy, security, and freedom of expression. Developers and users of the technology must reflect on the full range of rights implicated by any information-collecting activity, taking particular care to reduce the number of false positives associated with tracking and monitoring. Safeguards for human rights could be included in the terms of service and integrated into the technologies themselves.

    It can be difficult to reconcile anti-trafficking efforts with individuals’ rights, particularly when monitoring online trafficking behavior is needed to provide immediate help to victims. Yet without careful attention to human rights, there is a risk that new anti-trafficking technologies could endanger them. It is therefore important to consider human rights at every stage of the design process, from inception to implementation and training.

This report demonstrates that online classifieds and social networking sites play a role in facilitating human trafficking. As online technologies become integral to many facets of everyday life, and insofar as human trafficking remains a dark aspect of our modern reality, the intersection between trafficking and online technologies demands a coordinated response.

While the vast majority of Internet users do not engage in trafficking online, further research into trafficking activity on mainstream sites as well as numerous explicit sites is necessary and may serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. As more evidence is found, it would give various actors and stakeholders an opportunity to address the potential problem immediately, before the consequences become more widespread. Innovations and technologies applied to the online space have the potential to monitor and combat human trafficking in unprecedented ways. Carefully developing technological interventions that provide actionable, data-driven information in real time to those who are best positioned to help victims and survivors is a step forward.