Technology and Human Trafficking: Friends or Foes?

Ieva Pundina

Human trafficking is one of the world’s most shameful crimes. While human trafficking is not yet the most profitable illicit trade – that honor goes to narcotics trafficking – it is likely the fastest growing. This low cost, high profit crime is thought to be a 32 billion dollar industry. Despite the frequency of the crime, human trafficking remains largely hidden from society, but has arguably become more prevalent with the accessibility of both low and high technology.

Technology’s contribution to human trafficking has been mixed. Technology has helped to combat human trafficking by allowing law enforcement to identify perpetrators more easily by tracking cell phones and financial transactions, identifying sellers, and mapping criminal activities.  However, technology has also made the facilitation of human trafficking far easier for criminal networks.  For example, technology has created new online platforms for recruitment, especially when vulnerable populations can be more easily identified and targeted. In addition, human traffickers are increasingly leveraging the internet and cell phones to attract buyers of trafficking victims, making the selling of sex more seamless.

The sheer volume of available data generated by technology can create a tremendous amount of work for law enforcement to sift through, though, requiring better coordination between law enforcement and effective information-sharing procedures to prevent traffickers and criminal networks from gaining the upper-hand. To complicate the matter, a significant portion of the electronic information about human trafficking that could be used to better counter it is piecemeal and subject to privacy rules. Disparate databases contain information like state anti-trafficking legislation; pending trafficking-related cases; financial transactions commonly associated with trafficking; criminal justice and service-providers’ best practices; and human trafficking prevalence estimates. Data that is available is often stored using non-standardized terms, making it challenging to aggregate with other databases.

Traffickers, on the other hand, are not bound by confidentiality rules with regards to sharing trafficking-related information. Accordingly, many have managed to replicate technological best practices from other illicit activities and apply them to the human trafficking space, including identifying available smuggling routes, leveraging communication networks, sharing bank accounts, and making wire transfers.  The same networks that facilitate legitimate international business can also be a part of criminal activities, making it even more difficult for law enforcement to decipher the legal from the illegal. In fact, many “legal businesses” are simply shells for illicit activities – arms or narcotics smuggling, counterfeiting, money laundering, and/or human trafficking.

Human trafficking activities, like any market-driven business, respond to supply and demand. When major events take place, an increase in demand often leads to an uptick in human trafficking. The Super Bowl, for example, attracts thousands of people to the host city, generating millions of dollars for the local economy. Behind the public celebrations, however, a quiet system of sex trafficking often goes largely unnoticed. A Forbes article revealed that an estimated 10,000 prostitutes were brought to the 2010 Super Bowl in Florida, that Texas made 133 underage arrests for prostitution around the 2011 Super Bowl, and that Louisiana made 85 arrests for human trafficking and prostitution around the 2013 Super Bowl.

One method used to combat human trafficking around the Super Bowl is legislation.  Florida, Texas, Indiana, and Louisiana all tightened their anti-trafficking ahead of hosting the Super Bowl. New Jersey, which will host the Super Bowl in 2014, has already amended its laws in advance of the event. Beyond legislation, states, in coordination with local and national non-profits, often launch awareness and outreach campaigns, such as trainings for the hospitality and travel industries (bars, hotels, motels, restaurants, flight attendants, cab drivers) on how to recognize sex trafficking victims.  Still, the extent of the problem begs the question of what technology could be applied to better detect and combat traffickers and their activities around major events, like the Super Bowl.

In Dallas and New Orleans, law enforcement officials in 2011 and 2013, respectively, proposed using unmanned areal vehicles (UAVs) around the Super Bowl. UAVs would be used like traditional manned helicopters to survey crowds and potentially monitor suspicious criminal activities, including sex trafficking. An advantage of UAVs is that they allow for real-time data collection using live video signals.  This video is then transmitted back to a “war room”, of sorts. UAVs are already patrolling border areas in Arizona, Florida, and North Dakota, examples of how UAVs can assist law enforcement in surveillance and patrolling. UAVs are also being used to monitor drug trafficking, gathering intelligence on the movements of drug cartels and human smugglers between the US and Mexico. The FBI recently revealed that it uses UAVs for surveillance in hostage and barricade situations.

Nevertheless, a number of legitimate concerns exist around UAVs, particularly with regards to civil liberties and privacy. These very concerns are what prevented both Texas and New Orleans from using UAVs for security and crowd monitoring during their Super Bowls. Clear rules for individual protection must be set before their use.

Despite these concerns, the extent to which human traffickers leverage the internet, coupled with the abysmally low identification rate of victims, suggests that new ways to combat trafficking via technology are required. Whether by using UAVs, increasing online investigations by law enforcement, or developing more innovative data sharing tools to facilitate cross-organizational cooperation, technology will need to play a vital role in fighting trafficking.

Ieva Pundina is an International Research Fellow at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, where she focuses on human trafficking and national security issues. She previously worked as a lawyer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia, where she will return to this fall. Her expertise is in European Union and international law. She holds a master degree from University of Maastricht, European Law School, Netherlands.


Selected Sources

Moises Naim, Illicit, How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy, Doubleday, 2005, page 88.

UNODC Facts on Organized Crime:

D. Boyd, H. Casteel, M. Thakor, R. Johnson, Human Trafficking and Technology: A Framework for Understanding the Role of Technology in the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S.,, page 4.

Arthur Rizer and Sheri R.Glaser, Breach: The National Security Implications of Human Trafficking,

Widener Law Review, ISSN 1933-5555, 09/2011, Volume 17, Issue 1, page 87.

Michael Miklaucic and Jacqueline Brewer, Convergence of Illicit Networks and National Security in the Age of Globalization, Center for Complex Operations Institute for National Strategic Studies By National Defense University Press Washington, D.C.
2013,, page 234.

Margaret Minnicks, Human Trafficking Attracts More Traffickers than any Other Event in US,, February 3, 2013,

Matt Rudnitsky, The Super Bowl Had a Sex Trafficking Problem, to the Tune of 85 Arrests Made, Sports Grid, February 8, 2013,

New Jersey Tightens Human Trafficking Laws ahead of Super Bowl, Express Times, May 6, 2013,

Homeland Security New Wire, Arlington, Texas Hopes to Keep Aerial Drone, May 17, 2011,

T.C. Sottek, City Cancels Plans for Super Bowl Drone Despite Enthusiasm and Interest from NOPD, September 19, 2012, The Verge,

Jason Koebler,, New Orleans Says No to Drones at Super Bowl, September 20, 2012,

Noelle Newton, DPS Using Drones to Fight Crime Locally, KVUE News, January 24, 2011,

Cristina Costantini, U.S. Border Patrol Increases Use Of Unmanned Drones For Surveillance, Surveillance, The Huffington Post, May 1, 2012,

Ginger Thompson and Mark Mazzetti, U.S. Drones Fight Mexican Drug Trade, The New York Times, March 15, 2011,

Jake Miller, FBI Director Acknowledges Domestic Drone Use, CBS News, June 19, 2013,

Carol Cratty, FBI Uses Drones for Surveillance in U.S, CNN, June 20, 2013,

Dr. Andrea Little Limbago 

The recent presidential campaign placed data analytics in the limelight, highlighting its growing role across academia, industry, and politics. Whether it was the use of data scientists to mine vast amounts of information about voters, the pre-election vitriol for Nate Silver’s predictions for an easy Obama victory, or the post-election glorification of all-things data, quantitative data analytics is back en vogue after the scorching it received at the height of the recession. This trend has finally made its way into national security community. For instance, the recent Foreign Affairs May/June cover story, appropriately titled “The Rise of Big Data”, notes the transformative effect of the big data environment.

As is often the case, the pendulum swings sharply, with a growing movement toward big data analytics and away from domain expertise. Machines can simply replicate the knowledge inherent within a domain expert, it is argued, and provide more provocative assessments in a shorter period of time. In fact, a panel at the Strata 2012 Conference (a major conference in the IT world) debated the value of machine learning versus domain expertise. Not terribly surprising, an audience full of computer scientists and engineers sided with machine learning over domain expertise. Similarly, there are articles that point to the end of theory, as well as the all-predictive power of big data.

Unfortunately, these arguments mask the limitations of big data, which must be addressed given the high stakes involved in the national security community. Too often, many of the computational analytic solutions within the national security community lack domain expertise –in the choice of data, the theories underlying the models, and the results interpretation. This does not mean that big data analytics cannot be useful, but that they must be married with domain expertise. The national security community – given the diverse threats and high stakes – should in fact take the seemingly bold move and integrate domain experts with the big data solutions. Given the broad array of threats, as well as the inherent limitations in big data, domain expertise should be viewed as a necessary condition for any technological solutions aimed at augmenting the analytic tradecraft.

Shifting Environment

For the national security community, domain expertise broadly refers to the wide range of analysts – found in the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community, think tanks, academia and industry – who possess subject matter expertise in areas ranging from security studies to regional studies to foreign policy. Unlike during the Cold War where there was a significant emphasis on Kremlinologists, today’s domain experts cross a broad range of social sciences and regional expertise. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper notes in the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment to the US Intelligence Community, “Threats are more diverse, interconnected, and viral than at any time in history.” He reinforces the perspectives previously put forth in other strategic doctrine, such as the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Joint Operating Environment. Each document describes the dynamic and multifaceted environment, which contains a multi-polar distribution of power coupled with challenges of weapons of mass destruction, cyber, the persistence of violent extremist organizations (VEOs), as well as demographic shifts, natural resource tensions, and the effects of climate change. These challenges all converge within an era of globalization wherein technological advances are reshaping the status quo across the globe. The information technology revolution brings with it new challenges, empowering non-state actors to exploit vulnerabilities with very limited resource requirements, while also introducing the cyber sphere as a new domain for warfare. The diverse range of challenges in the global environment renders domain expertise even more pertinent, especially given the necessity to interweave and prioritize strategies and programs across the defense, development, and diplomatic spheres. As Dan McCauley recently noted in Small Wars Journal, “Given today’s dynamic and information-laden strategic environment, senior leaders cannot possibly possess the depth and breadth of information essential for informed decision making.”

Big Data and National Security

Not only is the national security community juggling a range of threats, it also is drowning in a sea of disparate data. From the White House’s overarching Big Data Initiative to the DoD’s Data to Decisions, the national security community is increasing the focus on technological solutions to analysts’, policymakers’, and warfighters’ overwhelming data challenges.  Solutions often range from cloud-based architectures to machine learning to data mining efforts, and highlight the success of big data analytics in other domains. For instance, in the sports world, Billy Beane’s team of quants out-performed the domain experts, while Nate Silver stuck to his data and proved the political pundits wrong this past election. President Obama’s interdisciplinary analytic team certainly was a contributing factor in his election success. And most pertinent to the national security community, a 2011 Nature article notes, “News Mining Might Have Predicted the Arab Spring.”

Preparing the Environment

Unfortunately, too often these technological solutions occur in a vacuum from domain expertise, and can go terrible astray if in the wrong hands. From being used to justify biases, to producing theoretically incorrect or nonsensical models, to simply ignoring the validity of data, computational analytics should not be viewed as a silver bullet. In complex systems – such as those we are seeing the global environment – the information and data are so noisy that there must be some means to parsimoniously identify the signals. And that is the realm of domain expertise. For instance, social science insights and models can help inform thinking by weeding out irrelevant information, and prioritizing those driving factors behind many of the key challenges in the environment. In this regard, domain expertise can also help make big data relevant, informing computational models with the inclusion of theoretically sound and operationally relevant variables instead of the variable soup that too often populates these complex models that fail to become operationally informative. In addition, with enough data, there will simply be an overwhelming amount of correlations. Domain expertise can weed out the nonsensical correlations, but also enables the exploration of causal mechanisms, while providing context to the findings and interpretation of results. Given the big data environment, the national security community should look for ways to integrate domain experts with the computer scientists and engineers. Computational analytic models and other advanced analytics will not succeed without a domain expert in the loop to help validate the models and vet the data, and ultimately help operationalize the new capabilities.

The dynamic and complex operational environment requires equally dynamic and rigorous capabilities to best inform strategy and operations, add rigor to assessments, and synchronize planning efforts across the globe. In a time of budgetary austerity, great efficiencies can be gained by marrying domain expertise with big data solutions. Big data analytics, when coupled with the insights and context that domain expertise provides, can greatly enhance the national security community’s ability to not only understand the dynamics of the global environment from strategic to tactical levels, but also can help make big data solutions relevant. Given the growing complexities and interdependencies within the operating environment, a smart integration of qualitative expertise and computational models could go a long way in making the big data revolution operationally relevant for the national security community.


Dr. Andrea Little Limbago is the Chief Social Scientist at Berico Technologies. She has taught courses on international relations, political economy, and development, and spent almost five years as a quantitative social scientist at the Joint Warfare Analysis Center.

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[slideshow]Last week, we were honored at WIIS to host an all-star cast of cyber security experts from both the federal and private sector to discuss future cyber security challenges and how a diverse workforce is an important step to solving these problems.


  • The need for cyber security professionals will increase for the foreseeable future, and there will not be enough qualified people to fill the workforce deficit.
  • The cyber security field is diverse. STEM professionals are needed, but area specialists, foreign policy experts, law enforcement officials and others are also needed.
  • Our “pipeline” issue means that there are not enough women becoming interested, staying interested, and committing to careers in STEM areas.
  • Steps need to be taken to create a cohesive cyber security approach across all stakeholders, public and private.
  • Cyber security is an important national security area, on par with air, water, sky and space.


  • WIIS Director Jolynn Shoemaker and CSIS Trustee Linda Hart gave the welcoming remarks.
  • Deloitte representatives presented the business case.
  • NGA COO Ellen McCarthy moderated the expert panel. Panelists included:

Rich Baich, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Security Officer, Wells Fargo

Cynthia Dion-Schwarz, Deputy Assistant Director, Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE) at National Science Foundation  

Karen Evans, National Director, US Cyber Challenge

Davina Pruitt-Mentle, Director of Educational Technology, Policy and Outreach, University of Maryland

Rosemary Wenchel, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Cyber Security Coordination, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

  • Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, gave the keynote address. Secretary Napolitano told the audience that cyber security attacks have increasingly become more prevalent, and that the greatest concern is the threat to infrastructure. She outlined the steps that DHS is taking to support the advancement of cyber security in the academic and private sectors, and stressed the need for cyber security legislation to create a cohesive and comprehensive defense against cyber attacks in the public and private sectors.

Event audio & video:

Video of DHS Secretary Napolitano’s keynote address

Audio of DHS Secretary Napolitano’s keynote address

Audio of expert panel

Media coverage:

The Hill: “Naplitano: Administration will act on cyber security if Congress fails to pass a bill”

Foreign Policy: “Napolitano: Cybersecurity legislation preferred over executive order”

Related articles:

Forbes: “More Women In Tech, More Women Mentors”