Rise in Phone-Facilitated Sex Trafficking

Much like drug dealers, sex traffickers have started largely relying on prepaid mobile phones to conduct business, according to a new report by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP). Drawing from a series of first-hand interviews with law enforcement officials and an analysis of mobile phone data, the report urges policymakers, business leaders, law enforcement, and social service providers to develop innovative solutions to technology-facilitated trafficking.

“Mobile phones are playing a far more central role in this than we had ever thought,” says Mark Latonero, co-author of the report, The Rise of Mobile and the Diffusion of Technology-Facilitated Trafficking. “Mobile is the new frontline battleground in the fight against trafficking.”

Mobile phones and devices are among numerous digital channels – including popular social networking sites and online classifieds – facilitating the exploitation of children. However, much of that activity has moved over to cell phones, Latonero says. The anonymity provided by “burner” cell phones—they can be bought at nearly any convenience store without an ID—makes them attractive to drug dealers and human traffickers. They are also relatively cheap and can be thrown away if a criminal feels like the police might be on his or her trail. Also, traffickers can use a smart phone’s GPS signal to make sure the people they’re exploiting don’t try to run away.

While the trafficking business is going mobile, Latonero says it’s not all bad news. A digital trail of trafficking activity can be used by law enforcement to set up sting operations and infiltrate human trafficking rings. “Once it moved to digital and network technologies, [we gained] a perspective into the business and social dynamics on a scale we never had access to before,” he says. “It’s a real opportunity.”

The report highlights the opportunity for private-sector technology companies and mobile carriers to work with the anti-trafficking community to develop meaningful solutions. The report’s recommendations include: 1) developing a comprehensive strategy to address human trafficking occurring on multiple digital platforms including mobile; 2) training law enforcement and social service providers; and 3) encouraging public officials to place human trafficking high on their policy-making agendas.

In 2011, CCLP released Human Trafficking Online, the landmark report examining the landscape of human trafficking online, particularly classified ad sites and social networking sites. Evidence gathered for the report demonstrated that the Internet was being used to facilitate human trafficking, particularly the sex trafficking of minors. The report also explored the potential of digital tools such as data mining, search analytics, and computational linguistics to combat human trafficking.

Learn more at Jason Koebler’s U.S. News & World Report article: Phones Become the ‘Frontline’ of Human Sex Trafficking and USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s Sacramento Bee article: USC Annenberg report reveals mobile as new battleground in fight against sex trafficking.


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