A recent news article coming out of MIT, “Turning technology against human traffickers,” by Kylie Foy of the Lincoln Laboratory highlights some notable developments in the use of technology across sectors in the anti-trafficking movement. These developments draw on the collaborations between MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, federal and state agencies, NGOS, universities and others to bring the expertise together in a more usable way for investigators. Their collaboration is to harness tech to make data in investigations easier to navigate and manage.
One thing they highlight is that pockets of trafficker tech activity are visible, but it can be incredibly difficult to pick out patterns and organize information into anything coherent. The goal is to be able to assess gaps in capabilities and build tools that are better able to identify patterns and detect entire networks of organized trafficking crime. This is even more essential now that places like Backpage, which had been a more centralized port of activity, have been disbanded, leading to the proliferation of many more decentralized locations where traffickers are posting ads.
Identifying patterns is incredibly time and labor intensive. The larger aim of this project is to make that process more manageable, especially to be able to put together timelines of data and evidence that can help build a case that can later be used at trial. This is not only beneficial for investigators — they argue that being able to use this data more heavily means they can rely less heavily on victim testimony, which can reduce the stress and trauma incurred on victim-survivors.
Learn more about the tools they are building in the article, available here.
Other Ways Tech is Utilized in The Fight Against Trafficking
This is of course not the first time practitioners have tried to mobilize tech resources to combat trafficking. It has been widely agreed that identifying victims, identifying perpetrators, tracking dark web advertisements and connections, as well as tracking illicit financial activity are all areas where technology can play an important role.
Organizations like Thorn are an example of how technology is used for victim identification, which they say helps streamline workflows and facilitates collaboration across jurisdictions and across borders.
Other apps are similarly developed to help promote victim identification through a variety of resources.
One caveat to note, however, is that technology is not magic–it can be a powerful tool, but it’s still subject to many of the same limitations that make trafficking difficult to combat to begin with, such as: that it can be incredibly difficult to identify a trafficking situation on its face and where the line is between coercion versus consent, that trafficking is a systemic issue and treating it via individual cases will not address the larger systemic causes, that facial recognition technologies are still (as far as we’re aware) susceptible to the same racial and gender biases as the humans who created them, and well as larger societal discussions about citizen privacy and other important values to consider. As we continue to build and rely upon technologies, it’s important to bear in mind that tools can help make some things easier but we also still need to keep addressing these larger, even more difficult issues.