Digital Anti-Trafficking: Reflections on Technological Risks & Opportunities

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    Post by: Mitali Thakor, PhD Candidate in the MIT Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, & Society. Her dissertation explores the politics of digital partnerships between multiple agencies on child exploitation and trafficking cases. She is also a Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society. You can reach her at or on Twitter @mitalithakor.

    As a PhD student in a hybrid program, MIT Science, Technology, and Society, I am passionate about multidisciplinary approaches to problem solving. Issues of trafficking and child exploitation online expose gaps in Internet safety as well as multiple social inequities and thus require creative solutions and partnerships. I am writing my dissertation on the new ways in which NGOs and activists, computer scientists, and law enforcement are collaborating to use data science for anti-trafficking work. Thanks to the generosity of multiple agencies like the UN-ACT project, I have had the opportunity to do fieldwork in the US, the Netherlands, and Thailand to get a more thorough grasp on trends in technology and anti-trafficking.

    In this blog post I offer a reflection on emerging technological issues regarding child exploitation online: I summarize two digital strategies for assisting with anti-trafficking casework—text data mining and imaging software—and also highlight current questions regarding Internet governance, privacy, and surveillance.

    Countering Trafficking Networks:

    As global access to cell phones, high-speed broadband Internet, and other communications platforms has increased dramatically, exploiters have also been able to utilize new digital technologies. Exploiters can use social media to locate, communicate with, and groom potential victims; text messages and email to conduct their affairs; various financial transaction sites to conduct monetary exchanges; and multiple platforms for trading and distributing photos and videos of trafficked or exploited victims. Online marketplaces live-streaming child sexual abuse have particularly raised alarm in recent years as such webcam streams are difficult to obtain geographical or other data on. In addition, the rise of the Deep Web, or encrypted Internet sites, has made it easier for people to conceal elements of their digital activities, from so-called “pedophile chat rooms”     

    Yet, as a child exploitation team officer at a social media company remarked, “Technology always leaves a trace,” and digital data can be critical in evidence collection and prosecution of trafficking and exploitation cases. In recent years, an unprecedented level of alliances have been forged between technology companies, researchers, activists, and law enforcement strategizing to detect cybercrime and to collect digital data as evidence. In addition, we have seen a rise in cross-border police partnerships, as virtual crimes often implicate multiple countries, or anonymous locations, and law enforcement attempt to locate victims, abusers, and downloaders alike.

    Text Analysis and Cybercrime Detection:

    Data mining algorithms are being designed and used in criminal investigations to explore large databases quickly and efficiently. Data science is useful for obtaining information from “Deep Web” databases such as government records, libraries, and other public records not easily searchable. Text analysis can also assist with analyzing language patterns in online advertisements, for example to detect advertisements suggesting the offer of sexual services by underage minors. Similarly, text analysis techniques can also help companies and law enforcement with financial transaction analysis, detecting relevant and potentially fraudulent transactions. Text detection can also assist law enforcement working with social media companies on existing investigations, to trawl through social media data for key phrases, dates, locations, and other indicators that may serve as evidence for prosecutions. However, such efforts are not without controversy, and must balance online users’ rights to privacy with the protection of children on websites.

    Imaging Software for Victim Identification:

    Image analysis – detection, filtering, categorization, and recognition – is arguably the most promising tool in conducting anti-exploitation cases. As increasing forms of child sexual exploitation occur or gain visibility online, the ability to rapidly detect the images of children reported missing or suspected as victimized by sexual abuse has great potential. Digital forensics tools are useful to automate the process of searching through photo data collected from computers and hard drives confiscated by police during investigations. INTERPOL manages the International Child Sexual Exploitation image database, which can be used for image-matching with the photos of missing children, victims, abusers, and geographic places (widely-used examples of image-comparison software include: PhotoDNA, Netclean, and ZiuZ). Image verification methods can be used to verify if images have been digitally altered or tampered with, such as an image of a child edited to become sexualized or violent. Image analysis can also be used to classify images from video file stills, such as surveillance/CCTV videos. However, imaging software, while increasingly sophisticated, is not foolproof accurate, and still poses challenges for law enforcement as they undergo training into its usage and balance manual content review with automated software. 

    Questions of Internet Governance, Ethics, & Privacy:

    New data science research offers exciting and revolutionary promise to be able to intervene and combat trafficking and exploitation of children. However, such research must be undertaken with care to limit mass surveillance and to protect the privacy rights and freedoms of non-criminal users while ensuring the protection of children online.

    How do we balance privacy and protection?
    This is perhaps the most important and confounding question with child exploitation online. Many of the techniques law enforcement must use for thorough digital investigations involve biometric surveillance, which is of course not without controversy. But personal privacy online can be critical for political activists, for example, seeking anonymity to avoid discrimination, harassment, or punishment from repressive governments. These groups may see the denial of privacy as a form of political control, and use encrypted websites, email, and other “Dark Web” technologies for their own personal safety (e.g. the Tor web browser, PGP-encrypted email, and anonymous texting applications can all serve people seeking to avoid surveillance for multiple reasons).

    Should we be worried about the Dark Web?
    Free browser bundles like The Tor Project enable online anonymity by directing web traffic through a free, worldwide, volunteer network consisting of thousands of relay points to conceal a user’s location and usage from anyone conducting network surveillance or traffic analysis. While essential for many groups seeking anonymity, such as government protestors, LGBT citizens, religious activists, and more, Tor unfortunately also poses a boon to traffickers and criminals. Encrypted networks are often called the “Dark Net” or “Dark Web” as they are not only difficult to search but can be used for illicit encrypted communication, image exchanges, and forums for the trading of drugs or child abuse images. However, Tor has weakness points and law enforcement and researchers have been able to begin efforts to investigate criminal activity, such as de-anonymization and denial of service attacks on pedophile chat forums and illicit content marketplaces. In 2014, for example, a joint law enforcement effort called “Operation Onymous” exposed illicit online commerce of weapons, drugs, and other illegal paraphernalia—a controversial operation that threatened criminals but also alarmed many seeking privacy for non-criminal reasons.

    What about children’s rights to privacy?
    Many have argued that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child applies to Internet space: children “shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds. Unfortunately, in the name of child safety, Internet governance legislation and advocates in many countries have chosen to move in the direction of censoring children’s access to social media. While online censorship models vary between countries (e.g. the censorship of “adult pornography” websites where illegal), sometimes censorship may veer too far and limit children’s access to educational and communication sites. I urge child safety specialists to think through online safety in a pragmatic manner that respects the vast benefits and opportunities of Internet connectivity and to avoid “techno-panics” by focusing instead on harm-reduction approaches to child safety.

    I encourage child protection specialists to consider these debates and to become involved with conversations around Internet governance in their countries. These are emergent and rapidly changing issues – What other questions or concerns do you have? What issues are relevant to your country or to the communities you work with?

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