Researchers Fight Human Trafficking Online

pink polka dot bag on the ground‌“Our eventual goal is to develop disruptive interventions.” – Ross Malaga


With the help of a grant from Microsoft, Montclair State researchers hope to play a pivotal role in bringing an end to the online sex trafficking of children. Montclair State School of Business researchers Nicole Bryan, Ross Malaga and Sasha Poucki will study the role technology plays in the crime, which along with other forms of human trafficking, has become the world’s fastest growing criminal industry, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In June, the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit and Microsoft Research awarded the grant to fund a yearlong study focusing on understanding the mindset, vocabulary and search patterns of “johns” who use networked technologies like the Internet, cell phones and social media to sexually exploit children. Bryan, assistant professor of management; Malaga, department chair and professor for information and operations management; and Poucki, a post-doctoral fellow and adjunct professor, will explore how johns search for and find online victims, as well as create networked communities.

“Our eventual goal is to develop disruptive interventions,” says Malaga. “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.”

The team, which includes a researcher from the Center for Court Innovation, brings a multidisciplinary perspective to the project. “We’re asking the big questions,” says Bryan, who is leading the interview process. “We want to know how this internal community works and exchanges information.”

The team hopes to recruit as many as 100 johns for the project. “Finding johns who are willing to participate in the study is the hardest part of the research,” Malaga points out. An information technology and search expert, Malaga is helping to developing the interview questions and analyze data. “Once we have data, we will use graduate assistants to help us analyze it,” he explains.

Other University students have expressed interest in working on the project. “We may find a role for students from different departments, including Justice Studies. We’re also thinking of organizing a club around this topic,” says Bryan.

Human Trafficking ranks alongside trade of illegal arms as second only to drug dealing in international crime, says Rane Johnson-Stempson, the principal research director for education and scholarly communications at Microsoft Research Connection. “The Montclair State team’s research will yield valuable insights into the role technology plays in child sex trafficking, and we are excited to collaborate with them.”

Researchers hope the technologies that the perpetrators use themselves ultimately defeat them. “Our goal is 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.”