My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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What is the Role of Technology in Human Trafficking?

Networked technologies – including the internet, mobile phones, and social media – alter how information flows and how people communicate. There is little doubt that technology is increasingly playing a role in the practices and processes surrounding human trafficking: the illegal trade of people for commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor, and other forms of modern-day slavery. Yet, little is known about costs and benefits of technology’s role. We do not know if there are more human trafficking victims as a result of technology, nor do we know if law enforcement can identify perpetrators better as a result of the traces that they leave. One thing that we do know is that technology makes many aspects of human trafficking more visible and more traceable, for better and for worse. Focusing on whether technology is good or bad misses the point; it is here to stay and it is imperative that we understand the role that it is playing. More importantly, we need to develop innovative ways of using technology to address the horrors of human trafficking.

To date, as researchers at USC have highlighted, there is little empirical research into the role that technology plays in human trafficking, let alone the commercial sexual exploitation of children. As a result, new interventions and policies are being driven by intuition, speculation, and extrapolation from highly publicized incidents. There’s no doubt that all forms human trafficking and modern day slavery are horrible, but if we actually want to help those that are victimized, we need to recognize that this is a complex issue and work to understand how the puzzle pieces fits together. My team at Microsoft Research is trying to untangle technology’s role in different facets of the human trafficking ecosystem, fully recognizing how complicated and messy it is. This is why we need your help.

Thanks to the generous support of the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit and Microsoft Research, I’m proud to announce a pool of grant money for researchers who can help us understand critical elements of the puzzle. Please forward this far and wide because we’re hoping to find scholars with the skills, domain knowledge, and passion to really help us interrogate how technology is used in human trafficking. We need anthropologists, communications scholars, computer scientists, criminologists, psychologists, sociologists, etc.

In order to help contextualize our RFP, we have prepared a framework document meant to map out one slice of the human trafficking ecosystem: “Human Trafficking and Technology: A framework for understanding the role of technology in the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the U.S.” This document is meant to articulate some of the complex issues and hard questions that we face in trying to understand technology’s role in one aspect of human trafficking. If you’re interested in this space, please be critical and challenge our thinking.

We are also looking to identify scholars who are working in this space, including graduate students and postdocs and researchers whose work is not yet published. Even if you’re not looking for grant money, please drop us a line if you’re grappling with technology’s role in human trafficking.

On a more personal note, I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to work for an organization that is willing to sponsor this line of inquiry. It’s amazing to work with colleagues who are all deeply passionate about really understanding this horrible practice in order to do what’s right. We’re all deeply committed to the importance of research and grounding our decisions in research. And we’re all deeply grateful to all of those out there who are determined to end the violence and oppression that comes with commercial sexual exploitation and modern day slavery.

Thank you! And we look forward to hearing from you!

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Image Source: Brandon Christopher Warren, Flickr

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2 comments to What is the Role of Technology in Human Trafficking?

  • Seanne Fortier

    Hi Danah. This is wonderful news and I am hoping that the grant money also applies to Canada as well. I have forwarded it to many of my colleagues in Canada.

    Have a wonderful holiday!


  • Joseph

    My forthcoming book has a chapter that looks at some of the efforts made to deal with this problem in the Far East