Out of the Shadows

Professors receive Microsoft grant to fight human trafficking with online research

The victims are vulnerable —often girls and boys ages 12 to 14 who have run away from home or are in foster care. They are lured, usually via the Internet, by men with the promise of better lives. Instead, they end up working as prostitutes, with their “saviors” becoming their pimps, advertising their services on the web. The FBI has more than doubled its human trafficking investigations since 2004, and estimates that as many as 300,000 children and teens in the United States are at risk each year for becoming victims of sex trafficking.

Now a team of three researchers from the Montclair State School of Business is trying to help put an end to the sex trafficking of children with a grant they received from Microsoft to study the role technology plays in the crime. In June, the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit and Microsoft Research awarded faculty members Nicole Bryan, Ross Malaga and Sasha Poucki a grant to study how minors are sexually exploited through the use of technology in the United States.

Their yearlong study will focus on understanding the mindset, vocabulary and search patterns of “johns” who use networked technologies such as the Internet, cell phones and social media to buy the sexual services of exploited children. Bryan, assistant professor of Management; Malaga, professor of Information and Operations Management; and Poucki, a post-doctoral fellow and adjunct professor, will investigate the ways johns search for and find victims online and create networked communities on both the East and West Coasts.

“We hope our research will make a positive contribution to the development of technology-based interventions in the war against this crime,” Malaga says.

The World’s Fastest-Growing Criminal Industry

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, human trafficking is the world’s fastest-growing criminal industry. “This form of modern-day slavery has the dubious distinction of ranking alongside the trade in illegal arms as the second-largest international criminal industry, trailing only drug dealing,” says Rane Johnson-Stempson, principal research director for education and scholarly communication at Microsoft Research Connections.

“Microsoft has a stake in ensuring that its technologies are not contributing to crime, particularly crimes against children. Their research will yield valuable insights into technology’s role in child sex trafficking, and we are excited to be collaborating with them,” Johnson-Stempson adds.

A Multidisciplinary Research Team

Bryan and Malaga have assembled a team that promises to bring a strong multidisciplinary perspective to the project. Bryan will lead the interview process, while Malaga will apply his technical acumen to the research. The team includes a human trafficking scholar and a researcher from the justice system.

Bryan brings more than 15 years of experience in conducting hundreds of in-depth interviews to the study. “Because we’re doing exploratory research that hasn’t been done before, this will be an especially challenging study,” says Bryan, who expects to interview as many as 100 johns to learn what compels them to engage in the trafficking of children.

Malaga, an IT and search expert, will help develop interview questions and analyze data. “We’ll be asking johns how they used networked technologies to search for, procure and engage with sex workers. We’re primarily interested in how they search, which sites they use and how they connect with their victims,” he explains.

Poucki, whose expertise is international human trafficking, will analyze chatroom discussions to discover the hidden vocabulary and encoded messages used by pimps, johns and victims.

Rachel Swaner is a principal research associate at the New York City-based Center for Court Innovation. The Center, which is dedicated to helping the justice system assist victims and reduce crime through innovative local, national and international programs, has published several key studies concerning the commercial sexual exploitation of children, or CSEC. As the project’s research associate, she will help spearhead the team’s recruitment of johns for interviews.

Cracking the Code

The team plans to interview a number of johns, ranging from those looking for companionship to those who actively seek to sexually exploit children.

“Finding johns who are willing to participate in the study is the hardest part of the research,” explains Malaga. To meet this challenge, they will go about it in two ways. First, they will partner with several “john schools,” which are alternatives to prison where offenders attend educational programs similar to those for people convicted of driving under the influence. They will also recruit directly online from the sites that perpetrators frequent.

According to Bryan, the group of johns who actively seek to exploit underage victims will be the most difficult to recruit for the interviews.

Bryan stresses the importance of establishing and maintaining an objective rapport throughout each interview despite the difficult—and repugnant—nature of the subject matter. “I start each interview with an unconditional positive regard. If interview subjects sense your bias, they won’t open up,” she says. “I’ll be using a Rogerian, or open-ended, respondent-driven interview technique to crack the code and learn just how johns search for victims online, exchange information, as well as establish and nurture online information networks.”

She notes that there is a growing group of johns who regularly and openly visit a proliferating number of human trafficking review boards and chat rooms to share stories. “We’re asking the big questions. We want to know how this internal community works and exchanges information. We want to know to what extent this anonymous online community encourages the involvement and active participation of johns who might otherwise be stopped by feelings of shame and guilt,” Bryan says.

Fighting Crime with Technology

In addition to the grant awarded to Montclair State, the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit and Microsoft Research has awarded grants to five other Canadian and American researchers, hoping to glean vital and invaluable data about the illicit use of technologies to advertise, buy, sell and sexually exploit children.

“Exploration of the use of technology in sex trafficking is at a beginning state,” says Malaga. “Our eventual goal is to develop disruptive interventions. If, for example, we find that search engines are used to find sites advertising sex workers, the search engines could remove those sites or even redirect anyone who clicks on them to a law enforcement page.”

Ultimately, Microsoft hopes to develop technologies to combat the illegal trade of people for commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor or other forms of contemporary enslavement based on the researchers’ cumulative data. “The findings and insights from these projects will drive advancements in the fight against human trafficking,” Johnson-Stempson predicts.

The Montclair State grant continues Microsoft’s ongoing commitment to developing innovative technologies to stop the criminal online exploitation of children, including a tool that helps find and remove images of child pornography from the Internet by tracking the “PhotoDNA.”

In July, Bryan and Poucki participated in a panel discussion on human trafficking at a Microsoft Research Faculty Summit in Washington. The team intends to present findings at a panel on corporate social responsibility in 2013.

“As a management professor, I am interested in corporate social responsibility and companies that are trying to do the right thing,” Bryan notes. “This project shows that Microsoft is trying to be proactive and not allow human trafficking to flourish on its technology.”

The researchers are pleased to find themselves helping combat this crime with research using the same tools exploited by the perpetrators themselves.

“Our goal is really to understand how the process works among johns who exploit minors,” says Bryan. “Our team’s overall mindset is that technology is the tool that will win this fight.”