Combating Human Trafficking Through Technology

The magnitude is difficult to pinpoint, but the International Labor Organization estimates that currently, there are 30 million victims of labor and sex trafficking around the world; one in four victims are children.

Law enforcement officers at the local, county, state, and federal levels investigate thousands of human trafficking cases every year and are often the first point of contact for victims who want to escape traffickers, connecting them to critical social services.

Human trafficking cases are complex. Investigations regularly take more time than other criminal cases, stretching on for several months or years. Typically, investigators begin by searching specialized online databases of sex work advertisements for clues of trafficking. They also find information about potential victims on social media platforms.

With the continued rise of internet technology in facilitating and investigating human trafficking, Georgia Tech researchers wanted to know how computing can play a role in what has increasingly become a big-data research problem. Julia Deeb-Swihart, a Ph.D. student in computer science at Georgia Tech, began examining human trafficking in 2013. “I was always drawn to problems that had a real-world impact,” she said.

Deeb-Swihart, along with Alex Endert, assistant professor in the School of Interactive Computing, and Amy Bruckman, professor in the School of Interactive Computing, interviewed law enforcement analysts, detectives, and other staff investigating human trafficking in cities in the U.S. and Canada to understand their computing needs and how computer scientists can design more supportive tools. It’s the first study to examine the role of technology in this type of law enforcement investigation.

The researchers highlighted three areas where human-centered computing can help: visualizing location data as traffickers move victims across jurisdictions, merging information databases, and modernizing information systems.

“We’re at a point where some traditional policing methods aren’t working anymore,” Deeb-Swihart said. “How do we take their existing methods and support them with technology? We can’t fully replace them, but we can support them.”

Technology gaps exist in collaboration and communication across law enforcement agencies. Departments — including ones investigating the same cases — may use different computing tools, which complicates the investigative process.

Deeb-Swihart said there’s also a need for tools that are accessible at all levels of computer literacy. “How do we develop tools that work across all different backgrounds?”

CITATION: Julia Deeb-Swihart, Alex Endert, and Amy Bruckman. 2019. “Understanding Law Enforcement Strategies and Needs for Combating Human Trafficking.” (CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems Proceedings (CHI 2019), May 4–9, 2019, Glasgow, Scotland UK)

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