Research funded by Microsoft is now underway to identify technology’s role in sex trafficking.
This research will help provide a framework for understanding how technology affects human trafficking in the United States, specifically regarding the commercial and sexual exploitation of children.
The $185,000 grant, awarded by Microsoft Research and the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit in March, will fund research that aims to provide intelligence and data concerning the advertising and selling of human trafficking victims, and the searching for and purchasing of victims by “johns” (those who buy victims).
Most projects funded by the grant will be completed by summer of 2013. According to Microsoft Research’s official website, some questions already being considered include, “How do johns search for their victims?,” “How are pimps communicating with johns?,” and “How is an arrangement to meet made during the process of buying and selling a victim?”
The aim of this grant is to help fund scholarly inquiry that can provide empirical research and evidence for Internet-related sex trafficking cases, such as the current high profile Village Voice Media scandal concerning the buying and selling of victims through Backpage.com.
Daphne Phung, founder and executive director of California Against Slavery, recently said Backpage.com, which is facing mounting public pressure, needs to be continually addressed by the media in order to further increase anti-sex trafficking awareness.
This type of pragmatic research could have the ability to serve as evidence to prosecute human traffickers in a court of law.
“It’s clear that child sex trafficking is evolving from the streets onto the Internet’s social networking sites and other online advertising sites,” said professor Mary G. Leary of Catholic University of America, whose project is focusing on providing a comprehensive assessment of judicial opinions on child sex trafficking issued over the last 10 years.
“Besides the Internet, cell phones and other technological devices are used to accomplish sex trafficking goals (of criminals, like johns and pimps). But how are the courts using this evidence? That’s what we’d like to determine,” Leary said.
Leary and other grant recipients, like Jennifer Musto, Ph.D., of Rice University, say they also recognize the opportunity of prevention in sex trafficking through their research.
“Human trafficking is a human rights issue that cannot be solved by one group alone,” said Musto, whose project aims to provide research on how law enforcement uses technology to combat the trafficking of children for commercial exploitation.
“By having different groups like NGOs, technology firms and law enforcement come together through this grant, we can not only work to combat human trafficking but also to prevent it,” she said.
She said that the practical application of her research is training law enforcement, who are usually at the front lines of the issue by being first responders.
Human trafficking is the second largest and fastest growing criminal industry in the world, according to the 2012 U.S. State Department Trafficking In Persons Report.
According to Musto, human trafficking is often first seen by law enforcement officials who arrest those involved in the crime, including johns, pimps and victims.
Law enforcement training that can be provided as an outcome of this Microsoft-funded research will help officials identify those sold through the human trafficking trade as victims and not criminals.
Another goal of Microsoft’s research is to raise human trafficking awareness because the public seems to be largely unaware that victims of sex trafficking are most often times forced into the slave trade by means of coercion, and not by their own voluntary actions.
“While technology certainly has a role in promoting the online solicitation of sex trafficking victims, the great thing about it is that it also plays a huge role in both preventing and combating the crime by generating awareness, and providing proof of trends and indicators,” Musto said.
“We are working to help provide a means to succeed in accomplishing the ultimate goal of all those behind anti-human trafficking–and that is to abolish slavery.”