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What is human trafficking, and how can technology combat it?

Police Car
March 13, 2019

Law enforcement organizations across the United States have recently arrested multiple people charged with various crimes that include organizing, operating or paying for services from human trafficking rings.

To learn more about human trafficking and how current and future technologies can help address the problem, ASU Now spoke with Kristen Abrams, the senior director of combatting human trafficking at ASU’s McCain Institute for International Leadership, and Nadya Bliss, director of ASU’s Global Security Initiative (GSI). GSI recently helped organize a conference at the United Nations on how computational science and AI can help combat human trafficking.

Question: What is human trafficking?

Abrams: Human trafficking, sometimes referred to as trafficking in persons or modern-day slavery, is a heinous crime that involves the exploitation of a person for the purpose of forced labor or commercial sex. Methods of coercion can be subtle or overt, physical or psychological and can include blackmailing, threats against a victim or a victim's loved ones, or the withholding of identifying documents or wages. Any commercial sexual exploitation of a minor is human trafficking, regardless of whether any form of force, fraud or coercion was involved.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, and its subsequent reauthorizations, provides a federal definition of human trafficking. Since 2013, every state has implemented legislation to define human trafficking. Many state definitions of human trafficking mirror the federal definition.

The use of the word “trafficking” has created some confusion in understanding what human trafficking involves. In crimes such as drug trafficking or arms trafficking, the illicit commodity, drugs or guns, are moved from one location to another or across an international border. Human trafficking is not synonymous with human smuggling. Human smuggling involves a voluntary contract between a person and smuggler to provide a service such as transportation or fraudulent identity documents to gain illegal entry into a foreign country. A victim of human trafficking does not have to be moved from one location to another or across an international border. Simply put, a human trafficker takes advantage of and exploits an individual for forced labor or commercial sex for the trafficker’s gain. 

Q: How are people trafficked?

Abrams: Human traffickers use a wide range of tactics to recruit and manipulate people to perform labor or commercial sex acts, ranging from subtle means of psychological manipulation to severe forms of violence. Human traffickers are often known to the victim — they may be associates, friends, significant others or family members of the person they seek to exploit.

A trafficker may use a close, unhealthy relationship or bond as a way to groom and compel a possible victim. Human traffickers may have direct access to potential victims, such as a family member, or they can use tools such as the internet or apps to make contact, gain trust and groom a potential victim.

Similar to gang or terrorist recruitment, human traffickers seek out those who might be vulnerable at a certain time or phase in their life. Individuals at higher risk for human trafficking include runaway and homeless youth, undocumented workers, children in foster care, individuals identifying as LGBTQ or people with disabilities. Anyone who lacks a support system or is isolated is vulnerable and more susceptible to human trafficking.

Q: Is there an estimate of how many people in the U.S. are trafficked?

Abrams: Many people would like to know the prevalence of human trafficking in the United States, especially those tasked with combatting this crime. More research and reliable supporting data would be required to arrive at an authoritative estimate. While the U.S. attorney general and the U.S. Department of State compile and release annual reports that contain some statistics regarding U.S. activities to combat human trafficking, they only provide part of the information required to form a full estimate.

Another source that provides some of the information that may help further inquiries into national prevalence is Polaris, a nonprofit organization seeking to eradicate human trafficking, which has operated a national human trafficking hotline for over a decade. In 2017, Polaris reported that it worked on 8,759 cases of human trafficking that involved 10,615 victims of the crime. It should be noted that these are cases and victims that appear to involve human trafficking, but not confirmed victims of human trafficking.

Global estimates help to contextualize U.S. numbers. The International Labour Organization (ILO), for example, reported that at any given time in 2016, there were an estimated 24.9 million people trapped in conditions of forced labor globally. The ILO further reports that women and girls are disproportionately affected by human trafficking, representing 99 percent of victims of forced labor in the commercial sex industry and 58 percent in other sectors.

Q: Is trafficking obvious?

Abrams: Human trafficking is not obvious, and it can be hard to recognize the signs. Individuals performing labor services and employers benefiting from this activity can appear legitimate. Moreover, victims of human trafficking often do not self-identify as victims. The methods used to manipulate individuals through power and control dynamics can be so egregious — or the trafficker may be so trusted — that a victim may not recognize the exploitation that he or she endured (or) view himself or herself as a victim of a crime. A victim can also be reluctant to report human trafficking because he or she may be fearful, lack trust or feel ashamed.

Additionally, some victims fear for their own safety or the safety of their loved ones, friends or family, while other victims may be undocumented migrants and fearful of deportation, or may be distrustful of law enforcement or other officials.

Though by no means an exhaustive list, an individual experiencing trafficking may exhibit one or more of the following indicators:

  • Signs of physical or psychological abuse, such as bruising or untreated medical conditions, depression, anxiety or low self-esteem.
  • Behavior that appears instructed by another, as though he or she is forced or coerced to carry out specific activities.
  • Not being paid, being paid very little, or working excessive hours or in dangerous conditions.
  • Not being allowed to leave home or work location, or is closely supervised and restricted in movement.
  • Experiencing threats made against themselves or family members.
  • Not being in possession of one’s own legal documents or financial records.
  • Being under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex.

Q: What is the difference between sex trafficking and consensual sex work?

Abrams: Sex trafficking occurs when an individual under the age of 18 performs a sex act for something of value. Anyone benefiting from this sex act — including the person who purchased and was a recipient of a sex act or a third party who obtains something of value — is a trafficker. If an individual is older than 18, one must show that the person performing the sex act was compelled to perform the sex act through means of force, fraud or coercion. If the individual is at least 18 years of age and no force, fraud or coercion was used to compel the sex act, this is not human trafficking. People willingly enter sex work for a variety of reasons. However, that does not mean that an individual engaged in sex work cannot be a victim of human trafficking. Trafficking occurs under situations of force, fraud or coercion, meaning that traffickers can victimize a willing sex worker.

Recognizing potential red flags and knowing the indicators of human trafficking is a key step in identifying more victims and helping them find the assistance they need. To request help or report suspected human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text "help" to BeFree (233733).

Using technology to combat the problem

Q: How can existing technology help fight human trafficking?

Bliss: One huge challenge that was repeatedly raised at the recent Code 8.7 Conference at the U.N. is the lack of a common database — of victims or of traffickers — that can be accessed by law enforcement organizations, governments and the organizations working to combat trafficking. That’s an example of an existing technology that could aid in helping law enforcement detect and follow up on trafficking-related issues, but there are challenges in creating such a database: For example, there would need to be a common data format, and there would need to be agreements on how information can be used to make sure victims’ privacy is protected.

Other examples of current technology that can help include systems to track trafficking on the dark web, or to assess the vulnerability of supply chains to forced labor.

Q: How can AI and other new technologies help?

Bliss: From an AI perspective, I think there’s an opportunity to inject tools like pattern recognition and signal detection to identify suspects, potential victims and survivors. But it’s not always obvious that someone is being trafficked, so working through things like analysis of massive data sets can take time because signatures of trafficking can be weak.

Another area that is particularly interesting within computer science is the balance of large-scale computation with security and privacy. In different application domains, security and privacy have different significance. In the area of human trafficking, protection of survivors and their confidential information is of paramount importance, and understanding how to build systems with multilevel security access that provide information without sacrificing privacy is incredibly important and a major challenge.

I’d also note it’s important to be sensitive when thinking about applying advanced research to any immediate problem. When there is an on-the-ground crisis, it’s not necessarily appropriate to inject a new algorithm or test a new system. It is appropriate to think longer-term about what risks are emerging, and from there to think about how the research can be applied to the problem in various places — for example, detection and rescue of survivors or identifying suspects in trafficking chains.

For more information on trafficking, visit the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Blue Campaign, the U.S. Department of State's 2018 Trafficking in Persons report, the U.S. attorney general's Trafficking in Persons report or the ASU McCain Institute for International Leadership's Combatting Human Trafficking website

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