Mobile Phones, the Internet, and Human Trafficking

The movie Journey to Freedom, which calls attention to the existence of modern-day trafficking in humans, was jointly funded by Google and the State Department. In December 2011, Google granted more than $11 million to counter-trafficking organizations. The company’s think tank spinoff, Google Ideas held a summit in 2012 in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations and Tribeca Enterprises to bring together activists disrupting illegal drug, organ, arms, and human trafficking.

Google is one of several prominent tech firms contributing pro-bono to the fight against human trafficking. The Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit assists stakeholders to create tech solutions to track down child sex traffickers. In 2009, Microsoft and NetClean developed PhotoDNA for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) that helps Internet service providers algorithmically find and remove child pornography on their servers. Data analysis firm Palantir also provides assistance to the NCMEC in parsing data sets to find child traffickers.

Slavery Footprint, which receives State Department funding, runs a web- and app-based service that notifies customers of the global “slavery footprint” that their consumption of everyday commodities and luxury goods (including consumer electronics) causes. The site/app measures a carbon-footprint-styled metric on the amount of unfree labor used to create the food and consumer goods in each visitor’s daily life. The footprint is based on an algorithm generated by the nonprofit, which then offers it to corporations so they can audit their supply chain for irregularities.

Technology, however, cuts both ways. A report released in late 2012 by the University of Southern California’s Center on Communication Leadership and Policy claims mobile phones are transforming sex trafficking. The anonymity of VoIP numbers forwarding to mobile phones and throwaway pre-paid phones are the contact methods of choice for pimps and sex traffickers. The use of smartphones means recruitment and advertisement can be done on the go. A thriving underground sex trade takes place on both Twitter and Facebook, with smartphones serving as the preferred method of interaction. Facebook, MocoSpace (a mobile gaming network), and gaming site Tagged, along with newer sites and projects, are all active vectors where sex traffickers find teenagers.

However, this cuts both ways. A law enforcement interviewee quoted in the study referred to phones confiscated from both traffickers and traffickees as “evidentiary gold mines” that play an important part in building cases against traffickers, thanks to their archives of text messages, voice mails, geotagged metadata, and web browsing history. This data can also help law enforcement find emerging websites, forums, and apps used in the underage sex trade.

“The rise of the Internet and mobile phone usage can work in favor of traffickers, helping them keep a low profile and facilitating human trafficking rings on a global scale–especially in the commercial sex industry, where sex traffickers use the Internet as a tool to target vulnerable women and girls. [But at the same time,] online outreach and social media are critical to combating and preventing child trafficking. The Internet fuels the anti-trafficking movement by increasing awareness, mobilizing advocacy, and strengthening programs, as well as providing victims and families with access to information about rehabilitation and reintegration services,” says Kristin Lindsey of the Global Fund for Children.

Learn more at Neal Ungerleider’s Co.Exist article: How Mobile Phones And The Internet Fight (And Help) Human Trafficking.

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