Shedding Light on the Role of Technology in Child Sex Trafficking

REDMOND, Wash. — July 18, 2012 — The pervasiveness of technology has changed our lives in dramatic ways. The Internet, mobile phones, social media and texting have altered how information flows and how people communicate. We have greater access to information, can get more done and stay better connected to family and friends. These new ways of communicating and exchanging information also have benefitted criminals of all stripes — including commercial child sex traffickers and their customers.

For years, Microsoft Corp. has been dedicated to helping create a safe computing environment for children and ensuring that Microsoft technologies are not used to conduct crime digitally. As part of its ongoing research and development in this area, Microsoft recently awarded six grants to research teams at universities across North America interested in better understanding the role technology plays in commercial child sex trafficking. The groups will share funding from Microsoft to advance deeper understanding of the technologies involved in the advertising, selling and purchasing of children for sex.

According to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Resource Center, human trafficking is a $32 billion per year industry and is tied with drugs for the most profitable criminal endeavor, having surpassed the illegal weapons trade.

Microsoft would like to make a difference in this area by developing technologies to help thwart the activities of child traffickers and those who do business with them. Unfortunately, the data needed to develop such disruptive technologies is elusive.

That’s why Microsoft Research and the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit issued a request for proposals (RFPs) to the academic community last December. Spearheaded by danah boyd, senior researcher, and Rane Johnson-Stempson, education and scholarly communication principal research director, at Microsoft Research, and Samantha Doerr, public affairs manager; Bill Harmon, assistant general counsel; and Sue Hotelling, principal program manager, at the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit, the RFP aimed to create a community of academic researchers who might begin to gather the data needed to shed light on how technology facilitates child sex trafficking, with the ultimate goal of developing technology to help address the issue.

“We thought the best way we could help is to first define the problem,” Johnson-Stempson said. “Then it’s much easier to build a technology solution that may disrupt it.”

Experience, Rigor and Creativity

The grants were awarded to research groups that have already completed studies related to technology and child victimization as well as those employing rigorous academic methodology and a creative approach to the project.

  • Dr. Nicole Bryan, Dr. Ross Malago and Dr. Sasha Poucki of Montclair State University and Dr. Rachel Swaner of the Center for Court Innovation — research to understand how “johns” — purchasers of sex — search for victims online

  • Dr. Susan McIntyre, advocate, counselor and researcher from Calgary, Alberta, and Dr. Dawne Clark and Norm Lewis of Mount Royal University — research focused on demand and how technology has changed the recruiting, buying and selling process in trafficking  

  • Professor Mary G. Leary of the Catholic University of America — an assessment of judicial opinions and the role of technology in child sex trafficking cases

  • Dr. Kimberly Mitchell of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center — research to understand the role of technology in facilitating child sex trafficking and its potential for improving services to victims

  • Dr. Jennifer Musto of Wellesley College — research on the role of technology in facilitating child sex trafficking from the perspective of law enforcement

  • Professor Anna Shavers, Dr. Dwayne Ball, Professor Matt Waite, Professor Sriyani Tidball and Dr. David Keck of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — research on the role of the Internet in child sex trafficking and the clandestine language used in Web advertising to facilitate child sex trafficking

On July 16 and 17, attendees of the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit — including several of the grant winners — explored the issue during a panel discussion titled “The Role of Technology in Human Trafficking.” The annual summit brings together academic researchers, educators, Microsoft researchers, product group architects and engineers to explore real-world challenges and how computer science research can help solve them.

“Pimps, traffickers and johns use online technologies to buy and sell women and children for sex at alarming rates,” said Bradley Myles, executive director of Polaris Project, a leading organization in the United States combatting all forms of human trafficking. “The national human trafficking hotline has received hundreds of tips about victims of sex trafficking being sold online all over the country. More research will definitely help us better understand the scope of the problem, identify and support more victims, and ultimately learn how to eradicate this crime and human rights abuse.”

A Long History in Child Safety

For more than a decade, Microsoft’s Child Online Safety Initiatives and the Trustworthy Computing Initiative have worked with families, communities, governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) around the world to provide education and technologies focused on helping to keep kids safe online.

Microsoft has worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) on the issue of child pornography for many years. As part of this ongoing work, in 2009 Microsoft Research and the Digital Crimes Unit, in collaboration with Dartmouth College and NCMEC, launched Microsoft PhotoDNA, technology that can find a known image in a sea of images online, helping service providers identify child pornography, determine where it is being shared and stop its proliferation.

However, the need to find technology that can actually disrupt other forms of child sexual exploitation such as trafficking is a different challenge. The Digital Crimes Unit has worked with leaders around the world for years to fight technology-driven child sexual exploitation such as child pornography, but the industry as a whole is still new to understanding the dynamics of trafficking, let alone innovating on effective solutions to combat it. Microsoft believes there is tremendous opportunity for technology to make a difference in this fight and that the first step starts with research.

“Although there can sometimes be linkages between such crimes, the truth is that child sex trafficking is simply a very different problem than other technology-facilitated child sexual exploitation issues that the tech sector has traditionally focused on,” Doerr said. “We need to look at the methods and language used for advertising — how johns go about searching, the use of mobile phones in child sex trafficking, and how a transaction is coordinated. With more research, we can be more scientific and better understand how technology plays a role and then be able to think about possible interventions that are truly effective and do not hold unintended consequences that may cause further harm.”

Focusing the Research

To make the scope more manageable, all six research projects will focus on commercial child sex trafficking in the U.S.

“This way, we can focus on the dynamics inside the technology companies, governments, NGOs and communities where we feel like we can actually make a difference,” boyd said. “When you think about this as a global problem, the dynamics are much more complex — there is a whole new set of social factors to work on.”

According to Professor Shavers at the University of Nebraska, there are anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 children currently being trafficked in the U.S. Shavers has been involved in various projects related to child trafficking, but her team’s new research will focus on the language used online to mask the buying and selling of children. To gain this knowledge, the group will conduct surveys at a number of nonprofit and court-run “john schools,” where people go for education and counseling about the harm they are causing by abusing children.

“We want to ask questions about how the johns find their victims,” Shavers said. “Were they really children? Were they aware they were children when they conducted the transactions? What led them to the victims? Once we identify the language used, we can develop intelligent software to identify advertisements and transactions online.”

Professor Leary, of Catholic University, is leading a team that will investigate court cases related to child sex trafficking that have a technology component. “We hope our research will produce material we can use to train law enforcement to gather evidence related to technology, to help them investigate more thoroughly and know where evidence could be located.”

Dr. Mitchell, at the University of New Hampshire, has spent her career looking for ways to help reduce victimization — especially when it involves children. “This is such a high-risk population, but these youth tend to fall between the cracks,” Mitchell said. “Much of the work out there focuses on reaching kids through school or working with parents, but many of the kids involved in trafficking aren’t in school and aren’t living at home. Any research that focuses on this population is important. We need to find innovative ways to reach them and help them.”

In addition to Polaris Project, Dartmouth and NCMEC, leaders from a variety of backgrounds are working on this issue, including DNA Foundation, Shared Hope, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), and University of Southern California (USC). Adding to this effort are Attorneys General Rob McKenna of Washington and Kamala Harris of California, and police departments in their states and others around the U.S.

Mark Latonero, research director at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, recently published “Human Trafficking Online: The Role of Social Networking Sites and Online Classifieds,” which examines the role of social networking sites and online classified ads in human trafficking and offers recommendations for developing technologies to monitor and combat trafficking.

“Developing technological solutions to the sex trafficking of minors requires a deep understanding of the complex dynamics of the crime as well as the capabilities of technology,” Latonero said. “Microsoft Research has the unique ability to bridge and foster the challenging interdisciplinary work needed to effectively intervene.”

Doerr added: “It’s a long road ahead, but we are excited to start making some traction and for the opportunity to contribute to what can be done to intervene. Armed with better data, I believe real breakthroughs are possible for helping disrupt the dynamics that fuel the child sex trade.”

For more information about human trafficking, visit the Polaris Project at To report a tip, connect with local anti-trafficking services or request information, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 888-373-7888.

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