The Role of Technology in Human Trafficking


July 17, 2012


Danah Boyd, Eduard Hovy, Janis Wolak, Mark Latonero, and Mary G. Leary


Microsoft Research New England, University of Souther California, University of Southern California, Catholic University Law School, University of New Hampshire


danah boyd from Microsoft Research chairs this session at Faculty Summit 2012.

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. Human trafficking has many facets to it and technology’s role varies as a result.

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. We do know 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 its role. More importantly, we need to develop innovative ways of using technology to address the horrors of human trafficking.

This panel explores ways in which technologists can use data traces to help address challenges in the human trafficking arena, paying particular attention to the commercial sexual exploitation of children. We discuss ways in which technology can help identify perpetrators or victims, empower law enforcement, and disrupt organized crime. We also examine the complex tensions involved in balancing the need to combat child victimization with the importance of civil liberties and privacy. Finally, we discuss the possibilities of—and need for—technical innovation that can counter human trafficking abuses.