• 01.08.13

How Mobile Phones And The Internet Fight (And Help) Human Trafficking

Prepaid mobile phones and websites are changing the nature of illegal sex trafficking in the United States. But tech giants like Google, Palantir, and Microsoft are all contributing resources to fight human traffickers worldwide.

How Mobile Phones And The Internet Fight (And Help) Human Trafficking

In late November, a movie called Journey to Freedom was shown at the State Department in Washington. The film, which calls attention to the existence of modern-day trafficking in humans, was jointly funded by Google and the State Department. Google’s collaboration with Foggy Bottom on the film was just the most recent salvo in a series of donations and activities to combat human trafficking; in December 2011, the technology giant granted more than $11 million to counter-trafficking organizations. The company’s think tank spinoff, Google Ideas held a summit in 2012 in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations and Tribeca Enterprises to bring together activists disrupting illegal drug, organ, arms, and human trafficking.


Apart from the global sex trade, human trafficking is endemic for purposes of forced manual labor in parts of Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. According to a 2002 United Nations estimate, between 10% and 20% of the population of the northern African country of Mauritania are currently being held in slavery.

Journey to Freedom tells the story of former Cambodian slave Vannak Prum, who worked as a forced laborer on a Thai fishing boat for three years, and of Solomon Northup, a free-born African-American from upstate New York who was sold into slavery in the Deep South in the 19th century. The film makes an explicit connection between contemporary human trafficking and slave labor, and the forced slavery of African-Americans in the United States.

Ambassador Luis Cdebaca, the State Department’s anti-human-trafficking czar, told Co.Exist in an interview that between 17 and 27 million people worldwide–roughly equivalent to the combined population of New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and London at the lowest end of the estimate–are being held as forced laborers worldwide. Most of these individuals were forced into slavery for presumed debts that they will be unable to pay, at the very least, for decades.

Google is one of several prominent tech firms contributing pro-bono to the fight against human trafficking. The Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit, alongside more conventional work fighting malware and offering assistance to institutions facing cyberattacks, assists stakeholders to create tech solutions to track down child sex traffickers. In 2009, Microsoft and NetClean developed a product called PhotoDNA for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) that helps Internet service providers algorithmically find and remove child pornography on their servers. Data analysis firm Palantir also provides assistance to the NCMEC in parsing data sets to find child traffickers.

“The rise of the Internet and mobile phone usage can work in favor of traffickers, helping them keep a low profile and facilitating human trafficking rings on a global scale–especially in the commercial sex industry, where sex traffickers use the Internet as a tool to target vulnerable women and girls. [But at the same time,] online outreach and social media are critical to combating and preventing child trafficking. The Internet fuels the anti-trafficking movement by increasing awareness, mobilizing advocacy, and strengthening programs, as well as providing victims and families with access to information about rehabilitation and reintegration services,” Kristin Lindsey of the Global Fund for Children told Co.Exist.

One organization receiving funding from the State Department, Slavery Footprint, runs a web- and app-based service that notifies customers of the global “slavery footprint” that their consumption of everyday commodities and luxury goods (including consumer electronics) causes. Forced and unfree labor is common in many agricultural settings, in mining of precious and rare earth metals in Africa and China, and in the construction of many consumer goods. “Understanding of slavery in the supply chain, for many customers, often stops at a few items because they’ve heard something about sweatshops or chocolate,” says Justin Dillon of Slavery Footprint. “We wanted to use empiricism to generate and amplify awareness of the use of slavery [in everyday products],” said Dillon. The site/app measures a carbon-footprint-styled metric on the amount of unfree labor used to create the food and consumer goods in each visitor’s daily life. The footprint is based on an algorithm generated by the nonprofit, which then offers it to corporations so they can audit their supply chain for irregularities.

“Just as it took the train and telegraph to get out the story of abolitionists [in the United States -ed.] to the general public in 1850s, the Internet and other new technologies are playing the same role in fighting human trafficking today,” Cdebaca told Co.Exist. One specific example cited by the ambassador is the ability of trafficked women in Haiti being able to communicate via Skype with family and friends in the United States.


Technology, however, cuts both ways. A report released in late 2012 by the University of Southern California’s Center on Communication Leadership and Policy claims mobile phones are transforming sex trafficking. While the USC report focuses primarily on the illicit sex trade in minors within the United States, it finds that the anonymity of VoIP numbers forwarding to mobile phones—or better yet, throwaway pre-paid phones by providers such as Metro PCS–are the contact methods of choice for pimps and sex traffickers. Mobile phones have replaced landlines as a way for traffickers to get in touch with customers, and the use of smartphones means recruitment and advertisement can be done on the go. A thriving underground sex trade takes place on both Twitter and Facebook, with smartphones serving as the preferred method of interaction.

Minors are also being recruited into the sex trade via social networking. The USC report claims that Facebook, MocoSpace (a mobile gaming network), and gaming site Tagged, along with newer sites and projects, are all active vectors where sex traffickers find teenagers. A 2010 investigation from the New York State Attorney General’s office found that graphic images of children were regularly available via Tagged.

Because the price of smartphones has decreased drastically, they have also become commonplace among both minor and of-age sex workers. One federal agent quoted in the USC report found that underage children “walking the stroll” would frequently carry a phone linked to an ad on an adult site such as Backpage or Myredbook, and that internet use was directly tied to both the trafficker’s and traffickee’s socioeconomic background.

Underage sex traffickers use throwaway phones slightly differently than drug dealers, another criminal subculture known for using them. The USC report noted that inexpensive smartphones are frequently used in order to utilize geotracking apps that keep tabs on the whereabouts of sex workers. Rather than relying on the voice and SMS text message portions of things, data plays an integral role in the use of mobile phones in child trafficking.

However, this cuts both ways. A law enforcement interviewee quoted in the study referred to phones confiscated from both traffickers and traffickees as “evidentiary gold mines” that play an important part in building cases against traffickers, thanks to their archives of text messages, voice mails, geotagged metadata, and web browsing history. This data can also help law enforcement find emerging websites, forums, and apps used in the underage sex trade.

No identification is required to purchase a prepaid mobile phone or SIM card in the United States. Registration of prepaid phones is currently required in countries including Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, and Thailand.

[Top, Middle Images: Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department. Bottom Image: USC]