Predator and Protector: The Role of Tech in Sex Trafficking

While the child sex trafficking narrative is often focused on the most vulnerable — foster youth, homeless kids and runaways — technology is making it easier than ever for traffickers to locate and communicate with any child who has access to a smartphone.

However, despite the reality that the Internet is a key tool for bad actors, it is also being leveraged to combat the epidemic. With increasing speed and success, technologists and nonprofits are creating tech solutions to raise awareness, collect data and prevent youth from becoming victims of sex trafficking.

Technology is Part of the Problem

“Sex traffickers love technology, too.”

That’s just one of the messages flashing across the homepage of Abolitionist Mom, a California nonprofit working to disrupt child sex trafficking.

“If you know teens,” said Genice Jacobs, the founder of Abolitionist Mom, “you know they don’t always discriminate against who they connect with online.” Jacobs is the mother of three teens.

She says predators are lurking in video chat rooms like Chatroulette and Omegle and on social media platforms. They’re also stalking gaming channels and the virtual communities formed around different music and photography apps like musical.ly and Instagram.

“The same apps that allow users to share their locations with their friends can be used by traffickers to geo-locate their victims,” Jacobs warned.

A 2015 report published by Thorn, a Los Angeles-based organization working to address the sexual exploitation of youth, found that the majority of victims met their eventual trafficker in person. However, younger victims, especially those that had been recruited most recently to the report’s release, were significantly more likely to have developed a relationship with their various predators – pimps, buyers or other exploiters – online.

“This finding is particularly troubling given that younger respondents express less reticence to meet people online in general,” wrote the report’s authors. “In particular, the younger respondents in our sample were significantly more likely to believe that the Internet is a safe place to meet people.”

But the Internet is anything but a safe place for children and young adults. Whereas predators target victims on a number of online platforms, sex traffickers and buyers also have their own online networks where they exchange tips and “best practices.”

“Technologists need to have a social consciousness about the fact that they’re creating such vulnerable environments where these activities can take place,” Jacobs said.

An example of a campaign by Abolitionist Mom that focuses on technology.

But Tech is Also Part of the Solution

Although sex traffickers use technology to ensnare their victims, tech is also being used for good. Heavyweights like Thorn, Polaris and Microsoft, along with a number of Bay Area organizations, are working to leverage technology to curb sex trafficking.

Awareness & Education

Vanessa Russell is the founder and executive director of Love Never Fails, a Bay Area nonprofit that is dedicated to the restoration, education and protection of those who’ve been involved, or are at risk of becoming involved, in domestic sex trafficking.

Russell also works in senior management at IT giant Cisco Systems, Inc.

“That’s one of the reasons why I’m in this fight to the degree that I am,” she said. “Tech is being used as the vehicle to perpetuate sex trafficking, and I feel strongly about using tech as a vehicle to prevent it and to intervene.”

A large part of her work at Love Never Fails is to leverage technology in middle and high school classrooms across 35 rural counties in California. The goal: to get students and teachers to discuss, identify and prevent trafficking.

Using interactive videos and online modules, teachers and students are trained how to recognize when a fellow student may be the victim of sex trafficking and how to report it.

Tech & Nonprofits

Ehb Teng is a serial entrepreneur and the co-founder of ATHack! Inc., a nonprofit made up of activists and technologists fighting human trafficking. Teng is working to bridge the divide between the technology and nonprofit sectors, something he calls “a tricky proposition.”

Earlier this year, ATHack hosted a first-of-its-kind hackathon in Silicon Valley to connect technologists with NGOs working to stop trafficking. Over 200 participants showed up.

“It was really successful,” Teng said, “but hackathons can be problematic because they seldom provide long term support or funding and projects are left to fend for themselves.”

Because of this, Teng and his team created The ATHack Fellowship Program. The three-month accelerator-like program is designed to support and fund two tech projects—one focused on labor trafficking and another aimed at sex trafficking.

Beginning in October, each team will get $10,000 and mentorship to develop and market their projects through December.

The projects must have a data collection component.

“There’s a hyper focus on prevalence data,” Teng said, “but that doesn’t help us end trafficking. We need to get a better grasp of what’s happening before people are trafficked.”

Data & Reporting

Data is equally important to John Krause, a software engineer who, along with Teng, co-founded Diginido Labs LLC, ATHack’s sister company.

Screenshots of GoodTown, an app developed by Diginido LLC that collects trafficking reports.

Diginido is a software design and development studio focused on generating tech-based solutions to critical social issues like child sex trafficking and homelessness. The team’s first app was called Labre, a crowd-sourced geo-repository for homeless services that draws from real-time information provided by community members.

“Homelessness and human trafficking go hand in hand,” Krauss said. “It seemed like a logical next step for us to take.”

Similar to Labre, Krause and his colleagues developed GoodTown, an app that collects trafficking reports on minors and adults from law enforcement officials, medical service providers and the general public.

GoodTown users are guided through a three-step process to send a report. Diginido then stores that data and creates a map of where trafficking is being reported. Once a sufficient amount of data is accumulated, GoodTown’s developers plan to share their findings with the appropriate public, private and government sector parties.

“Our biggest push is to gather data,” Krause said, “because we don’t understand what’s happening in our own cities. That’s where we can be the most effective.”



Shane Downing
is a San Francisco-based writer and a neighborhood editor for Hoodline. View Shane’s portfolio and follow him on Twitter @SCdowning.

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