Human traffickingTurning Technology against Human Traffickers

By Kylie Foy

Published 7 May 2021

Last October, the White House released the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking. The plan was motivated, in part, by a greater understanding of the pervasiveness of the crime. This increasing awareness has also motivated MIT Lincoln Laboratory to harness its technological expertise toward combating human trafficking.

Last October, the White House released the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking. The plan was motivated, in part, by a greater understanding of the pervasiveness of the crime. In 2019, 11,500 situations of human trafficking in the United States were identified through the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and the federal government estimates there are nearly 25 million victims globally.

This increasing awareness has also motivated MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center, to harness its technological expertise toward combating human trafficking.

In recent years, researchers in the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group have met with federal, state, and local agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and technology companies to understand the challenges in identifying, investigating, and prosecuting trafficking cases. In 2019, the team compiled their findings and 29 targeted technology recommendations into a roadmap for the federal government. This roadmap informed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s recent counter-trafficking strategy released in 2020.

Traffickers are using technology to gain efficiencies of scale, from online commercial sex marketplaces to complex internet-driven money laundering, and we must also leverage technology to counter them,” says Matthew Daggett, who is leading this research at the laboratory.

In July, Daggett testified at a congressional hearing about many of the current technology gaps and made several policy recommendations on the role of technology countering trafficking. “Taking advantage of digital evidence can be overwhelming for investigators. There’s not a lot of technology out there to pull it all together, and while there are pockets of tech activity, we see a lot of duplication of effort because this work is siloed across the community,” he adds.

Breaking down these silos has been part of Daggett’s goal. Most recently, he brought together almost 200 practitioners from 85 federal and state agencies, NGOs, universities, and companies for the Counter–Human Trafficking Technology Workshop at Lincoln Laboratory. This first-of-its-kind virtual event brought about discussions of how technology is used today, where gaps exist, and what opportunities exist for new partnerships. 

The workshop was also an opportunity for the laboratory’s researchers to present several advanced tools in development. “The goal is to come up with sustainable ways to partner on transitioning these prototypes out into the field,” Daggett adds.

Uncovering Networks
One the most mature capabilities at the laboratory in countering human trafficking deals with the challenge of discovering large-scale, organized trafficking networks.

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