University of Southern California USC

Summary of Key Findings, Further Research, and Guiding Principles

This report forwards two key findings on the role of technology in domestic minor sex trafficking:

  • Technology-facilitated trafficking is far more diffuse than initially thought, spreading across multiple online sites and digital platforms.
  • Mobile devices and networks play an increasingly important role that can potentially transform the trafficking landscape.

These findings should be taken into consideration as policymakers, law enforcement, the private sector and other stakeholders work to develop effective technology solutions to the sex trafficking of minors.

In particular, the centrality of mobile phones has major implications for counter-trafficking efforts, and may represent a powerful new tool in identifying, tracking, and prosecuting traffickers as well as in other counter-trafficking efforts. The rapid proliferation of mobile technology has the potential to transform the human trafficking landscape. Mobile phones offer advantages of spontaneous, real-time communication and coordination, unbound by physical location, which are exploited by traffickers to extend the reach of their illicit activities. Traffickers are able to recruit, advertise, organize, and communicate primarily – or even exclusively – via mobile phone, effectively streamlining their activities and expanding their criminal networks.

In order to effectively develop counter-trafficking initiatives using mobile technology, we must understand the scope and application of the mobile revolution around the world. Mobile technology has spread across the globe with incredible speed: no other technology in history, including the Internet, has achieved such rapid adoption rates, and already mobile penetration worldwide has reached 75%.[1] Within this broad trend, however, there are variations in use and application depending on a number of demographic factors, which have important implications for the kind of counter-trafficking interventions that will be effective and appropriate.

In the U.S., for instance, 85% of adults own a cell phone, and 45% own a smartphone,[2] but access and use can vary widely by age, gender, ethnicity, geographic location, income, and education. In 2010, African-American and Latino populations were among the most active cell-phone users, with adoption rates of about 87%, compared to 80% among white users, and also made use of a wider range of cell phone features[3]. Youth are also avid users, using cell phones for a wide range of activities including texting, taking photos and videos, and accessing the Internet: in 2010 they sent and received an average of 50 texts a day, about 5 times as many as adult users.[4]

Such differences in access and use are also apparent at the international level. Total mobile-cellular subscriptions reached almost 6 billion by the end of 2011, with developing countries accounting for more than 80% of the new subscriptions.[5]  Trends can vary significantly by region and country: in Thailand, for instance, there are nearly 80 million mobile phones in use in a country of just over 68 million.[6] Compare this to a country like Nepal, which has 13.4 million mobile phones in use for a population of nearly 30 million,[7] and it is clear that mobile adoption is by no means an even, linear process across the board.

With such variation in the diffusion and application of mobile technology, not all technological interventions will work across all groups, and the counter-trafficking community will need to tailor its approach to fit the specific technological profile of a target country or population. Strategies will need to be comprehensive, reflecting a new way of thinking across all sectors that take into consideration the broader trend of technology-facilitated trafficking as well as the variations in use according to environment and other factors.

Further Research

This report has left a number of important questions about the role of technology in human trafficking unanswered. Understanding of technology-facilitated trafficking has improved dramatically over the last few years, but further research in the following areas is needed:

  • Policy research directed towards mobile policy and FCC involvement to understand the role of government regulation and private mobile companies.
  • Focus on victims and survivors and their relationship with technology and mobile phones. Such research could aid the development of tools such as mobile SMS hotlines, mobile apps, video narratives, and games, which could aid vulnerable individuals by promoting awareness and behavioral change.
  • The intersection of technology and Labor trafficking and technology.
  • The similarities and differences of technology’s role in adult sex trafficking.
  • The impact of digital activism, particularly by non-experts.
  • Understanding of varying legislation around technology-facilitated trafficking.
  • Utilizing more evidence based methodologies can further investigate the exploratory themes that emerged in this report.
  • International research will be important in deepening our understanding of how the trafficking ecosystem is developing across borders. Comparative research on the US compared to other countries will contribute to the development of comprehensive counter-trafficking strategies at an international level.

Guiding Principles

In CCLP’s 2011 report, five guiding principles were developed for future technological interventions in human trafficking. These principles are listed below, and accompanied by adaptations to account for the contributions of this year’s report in terms of the rise of mobile and the diffusion of technology-facilitated trafficking.

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

Interventions should include a nuanced understanding of mobile technologies and should be fully attuned to potential unintended consequences in order maximize the benefit and minimize the harm to trafficked persons, victims, and survivors.  

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

A comprehensive strategy is needed to address the diffusion of technology-facilitated trafficking. Addressing this problem requires representation and input from multiple sectors and perspectives, and diversification of the actors involved in discussions of technology and trafficking should be a priority. Anti-trafficking NGOs, victims and survivors, and groups with targeted expertise such as healthcare professionals, those working with at-risk youth, or migrant rights groups in the case of labor trafficking, can contribute valuable insights and perspective in the development of social and technical solutions.

At the policy level, a comprehensive solution will involve complementary and mutually reinforcing applications of both technological and conventional tools. Policymakers should be attentive to what technology can and cannot accomplish to address deeply entrenched problems,

  1. 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.

Mobile phone carriers, including pre-paid cellular carriers and mobile manufacturers, should acknowledge the extent to which their products and services are being misused for human trafficking. Leaders in the mobile sector should work with anti-trafficking experts to innovate and develop appropriate responses. Private mobile networks operating on spectrum licensed by the U.S. Government may be may be incentivized to forge private-public anti-trafficking solutions. Such efforts on the part of industry need not be seen as burdensome, but rather should be viewed in light of the benefits that can come from discouraging violations of human rights on their networks and promoting digital safety and security.

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

The diffusion of technology-facilitated trafficking demonstrates the fast-moving and ever-changing nature of the technology ecosystem. Mobile technology is being adopted faster than any technology in human history, and researchers and developers working to create solutions should monitor the socio-technological landscape and develop responses that are agile and adaptable to constant change. Fixating on any particular channel or specific technology runs the risk of blinding us to the changing dynamics of digital networked technologies. As mobile phones continue to play a central role in technology-facilitated trafficking, we must be equally aware that mobile devices themselves will continue to change, with a corresponding shift in use and applications in the trafficking world. Responsiveness and adaptability are vital in a landscape where technology is rapidly and constantly evolving.

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

As technology is built into counter-trafficking efforts, the inherent risks of using technology to identify and track the behavior and activity of individuals must be considered. Counter-trafficking solutions should be designed with careful oversight to ensure that the design and methods do not overstep rights to privacy, or unduly target certain groups. Particular care and attention to civil liberties and constitutional rights should be balanced with the need to respond to trafficked persons, and particularly children at risk, with immediate assistance.

As many of the major social issues of our time are increasingly mediated by technology, human trafficking is a valuable case study and barometer for future efforts that utilize technological solutions to intervene. As technology, and mobile in particular, continues to spread across the globe, policymakers and stakeholders will need to acknowledge the threats and embrace the positive opportunities of technology in matters of social change and human rights.



[1]               World Bank. 2012. Information and Communications for Development 2012: Maximizing Mobile.

Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

[2] http://pewinternet.org/Commentary/2012/February/Pew-Internet-Mobile.aspx

[3] http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Mobile-Access-2010.aspx

[4] http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Cell-Phones-and-American-Adults.aspx

[5] World Bank. 2012. Information and Communications for Development 2012: Maximizing Mobile. Washington, DC: World Bank

[6] “Thailand.” CIA Factbook. Retrieved 2 November 2012 from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/th.html

[7] “Nepal.” CIA Factbook. Retrieved 2 November 2012 from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/np.html