University of Southern California USC


In November 2010, Marvin Chavelle Epps was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in federal prison for sex trafficking of a minor. According to court documents, Epps contacted the 16-year-old female via MySpace, encouraging her to travel to Sacramento, California, to work for him and then advertising her sexual services on the Internet from a hotel.1 Police recovered a transcript in which Epps described his practices as “Y2K pimpin’,” explaining that he would “get some professional, beautiful, elegant, glamor [sic] shots [and] put ’em on these escort websites.”2

According to evidence gathered for this report, online classifieds and social networking sites are used as conduits for human trafficking. “Human trafficking” and “trafficking in persons” are terms commonly used to describe a form of modern-day slavery wherein victims are forced or otherwise coerced into labor or sex both across and within state and international borders.3

The number of trafficking victims around the world is a topic of debate, with recent estimates ranging from 12 million to 27 million victims worldwide. Due to myriad methodological difficulties, this report refrains from estimating the number of trafficking cases online; however, it will demonstrate that traffickers are indeed employing 21st century communication tools to support human slavery.

The rapid expansion of the Internet and online technologies is affecting numerous aspects of daily life around the globe, including facilitating domestic and international trafficking in persons. “We are faced with the increasing use of social network sites and other advances in technology to carry out these crimes and facilitate these criminal enterprises,” said Robert S. Mueller III, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mueller observed, “Because of the accessibility and the anonymity the Internet provides, Main Street is quickly becoming an online avenue.”4

Similarly, Kimberly Agbonkpolor, program manager for the Los Angeles Metro Task Force on Human Trafficking, stated that much of what once happened on the streets now takes place behind closed doors. “The Internet is used as a way of recruiting and a way of advertising for the prostitution of young girls,” said Agbonkpolor.5

Despite accounts of traffickers and their customers using online channels for recruitment, advertising, and procurement, the extent to which online technologies are used in both sex trafficking and labor trafficking is unclear, and the current approach to the issue is lacking. Although online classified sites such as Craigslist already have come under intense scrutiny for use by traffickers,6 the role of social networking sites and online classifieds in trafficking has yet to be fully studied.

While human trafficking stems from a complex set of economic, social, and cultural causes that predate the development of online technologies7 and continue to exist as new technologies emerge, it is undeniable that trafficking activity is taking place online. Yet the role of the online environment in trafficking remains an open question. Instead of viewing social networking sites and online classifieds as the cause of trafficking, this report offers a different approach by observing the manner in which traffickers are using online technologies and exploring whether the same technologies can be used to monitor and combat trafficking.

The Internet makes a wide array of human behaviors—both positive and negative—more visible.8 Trafficking online thus presents the anti-trafficking community with an unprecedented window to observe, track, and monitor the conduct of both the supply and demand sides of the trafficking trade.

The private sector capitalizes on the online visibility of Internet users by routinely collecting data on consumer behaviors for targeted marketing and advertising strategies. Yet efforts to harness data and technological tools to address social problems lag behind. This report attempts to utilize the visibility of trafficking activity online to develop solutions.

The 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, issued by the U.S. Department of State, addresses the potential of new media to combat trafficking. According to the report, “New media will play a critical role in bringing together those committed to this fight.”9 Despite the potential for applying new media and technology to target trafficking, the tools are not being developed rapidly enough or deployed in a sufficiently coordinated way.

This study forwards the hypothesis that technology and online tools can be used by anti-trafficking actors dedicated to prevention, protection, and prosecution. One research goal is to develop ways online technologies can be leveraged to provide empirically driven actionable information in real time to those positioned to help victims. Adapting these technologies and methods requires careful consideration of potential implications for civil liberties, such as privacy and freedom of expression.

In this report, researchers analyze the relationship between human trafficking and online technologies. Literature reviews of research related to trafficking in persons and trafficking via the Internet, specifically, serve to identify information gaps and highlight the need for additional study. Field research, interviews, and a sample of recent trafficking cases involving online technologies provide details regarding the different uses of the Internet by traffickers. Although the scope of this inquiry includes the role of online activity in both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, this study found evidence establishing the use of online channels only in the context of sex trafficking.

This report details a series of exploratory studies conducted by the Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, in partnership with the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California to innovate and develop tools to potentially detect sex trafficking online. Researchers employed technologies and methods such as data mining, web crawling, computational linguistics, and mapping. These tools are being developed with feedback from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and are intended to support law enforcement and other anti-trafficking efforts. This report also examines other potentially useful technologies, including crowdsourcing and mobile phone applications, and offers action-oriented recommendations for government, NGOs, the private sector, and academia. The report concludes with a set of guidelines to inform future technological interventions in human trafficking.


  1. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sacramento, “Sacramento Man Sentenced to 12 Years and Seven Months for Sex Trafficking of a Minor,” Department of Justice press release, November 8, 2010,^
  2. Kevin Poulsen, “Pimps Go Online to Lure Kids Into Prostitution,”, February 25, 2009,^
  3. According to the 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, major forms of trafficking include forced labor, sex trafficking, bonded labor, debt bondage, involuntary domestic servitude, forced child labor, child soldiers, and child sex trafficking. U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2011, 7-10. For an in-depth discussion of the debate surrounding the definition of “trafficking,” see Siddharth Kara, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 4.^
  4. Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Innocence Lost/Operation Cross-Country Press Conference,” Washington, D.C., June 25, 2008, (speech by Robert S. Mueller, director, FBI).^
  5. “Starting out young in the world’s oldest profession: children prostitutes in L.A,” Pat Morrison, Southern California Public Radio, October 21, 2010,^
  6. Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Hearings on H.R. 5575, Before the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, 111th Cong. (2010).^
  7. For a discussion on the complex social causes of human trafficking, see Siddharth Kara, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York, Vintage Books, 2010); and Joel Quirk, The Anti-Slavery Project: From the Slave Trade to Human Trafficking (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).^
  8. For more information, see danah m. boyd, The Social Lives of Networked Teens (New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming 2012).^
  9. U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2011, 35.^