Texting, calling and Facebooking are the functions most cell phone users associate with their phones, but a new report affirmed that phones often serve more sinister purposes, such as human trafficking.
The USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy released Tuesday a report exploring the burgeoning use of mobile and online technology in human trafficking. Titled “The Rise of Mobile and the Diffusion of Technology-Facilitated Trafficking,” the piece discusses mobile technology’s impact on the human trafficking of children and potential solutions to combat its effect.
After compiling data over a period of two years, Mark Latonero, the project’s research director, and his team ultimately concluded that mobile devices and online classifieds are being used at growing rates to facilitate human trafficking, specifically in cases involving juvenile victims.
“To start, we analyzed and looked at lots of data analysis and technology sources known to be sites where traffickers operated in the past,” Latonero said.
The report highlights the ways in which traffickers can exploit their victims via technology embedded within mobile phones. Latonero and his colleagues cited GPS and Internet features in most modern phones as two of the most useful tools for traffickers.
“Mobile phones make coordination easier,” Latonero said. “The phones allow traffickers the ability to reach a wider group of people at greater distances, and enable traffickers to control their victims in unique ways; there exist programs within phones to locate where people and where phones are. Thus, traffickers can discover where their potential victims are.”
The Annenberg research team stressed that the same technology exploited by the traffickers, however, can be used by anti-trafficking organizations to stop the trafficking of children.
“Law enforcement officials are using online and mobile technology for these crimes against children to turn the tables on traffickers,” Latonero said. “We hope with our report that mobile companies will take note and will become more aware, and that the private sector will also help to develop technology to combat crimes against human trafficking.”
In exploring modern solutions to work against traffickers, the report analyzes two case studies in which text-based alert systems have been implemented to warn mobile phone customers about potential trafficking threats.
“We examined a case study in Haiti, where a company by the name of digicel is working with an anti-trafficking NGO in order to develop these alerts,” Latonero said. “This demonstrates a mobile company working hand in hand with the anti-trafficking community.”
According to Latonero, Annenberg’s report was put into motion upon request of the U.S. State Department, which sought to gather more information about technology use in human trafficking.
“Annenberg has a long history of research and technology used proactively for positive social change,” Latonero said. “Our department worked with engineers at the Viterbi School to provide the computer science and engineering behind developing technology to help out the anti-trafficking community. The report draws from the strength of the two schools.”
The report also comes on the heels of California’s newly approved Proposition 35, which, among other provisions, requires all convicted sex traffickers to register as sex offenders and requires all registered sex offenders to disclose their internet accounts.
“Prop. 35 has really been productive in calling attention to human trafficking issues,” Latonero said.
Even President Barack Obama acknowledged the growing problem of human trafficking in a September speech where he called the practice a “debasement of our common humanity that tears at the social fabric of our communities, endangers public health, distorts markets, and fuels violence and organized crime.”
Moving forward, Latonero and his team hope that their findings will assist lawmakers in crafting policy specifically to combat modern human trafficking.
“Policymakers in general are eager to find real, evidence-based research that will help inform their policies in the future,” Latonero said. “There’s no doubt that policymakers of high standing can use research like this to inform national policy.”