Empowering Public Authorities in the Technological Fight Against Human Trafficking

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By Sibel Top, Guest Blogger*

Rob Wainright, former director of Europol, warned that “technology has lowered the bar of entry to the criminal world”. Traffickers are making the most out of available technologies to lure potential victims into trafficking. Those who are working every day to fight human trafficking seem to be lagging behind. Rather than waiting for traffickers one step ahead, they are attempting to catch up with the technology traffickers use. Individuals working in the field to fight human trafficking do not necessarily have the required expertise or human resources to chase traffickers online, nor the financial capacity to stop them. Imagine fighting an army of drones with a slingshot; it is an unequal battle. This leaves law enforcement and public authorities in a tough position. What can they do without the expertise, the necessary human resources or the financial means to get traffickers? A potential solution is to partner with a stakeholder that could provide access to automated and scalable technology, thereby requiring minimum human supervision and expertise.

Public and Private Partnerships

The first step of this endeavor would be for public authorities to partner with a stakeholder – private or public – who already has or can develop this kind of technological expertise.  Fortunately, there are possibilities to find funding at the international or supranational levels for such initiatives. The United Nations (UN), for example, launched the Blockchain for Humanity – Global Challenge project, which is now funding a joint project partnering Consensys, a Brooklyn-based software company, with the Moldovan government to create digital identities for undocumented children in Moldova.

The technology developed by Consensys and used by Moldovan authorities will secure a digital ID on Blockchain for undocumented children in Moldova who are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. Whenever a child with a digital ID is about to cross a border, their information will be stored on the Blockchain, enabling authorities to easily trace the victim. In order to prevent the child from being trafficked in the first place, developers envision linking the identity to a system of permissioned transaction, which sends a notification to child guardians who would need to give their approval for the border crossing. There are obvious problems already identifiable in this, such as when children are trafficked by family members, but it presents the advantage of creating an automated system that does not require a large amount of human capacity for operation and provides storage of information which enables law enforcement to trace traffickers.

Automation and Scalability

The second aspect of this potential solution is automation and scalability. If the authorities are provided with tools to enable automated research that can target traffickers or “follow the money” with minimum human supervision, they would not need enhanced human resources to fight trafficking on a larger scale. For example, Rebecca Portnoff and her team at Berkeley developed an automated and scalable tool for clustering sex advertisements by owners. Her system is comprised of two techniques. The first is a machine learning classifier using stylometry to identify whether sex advertisements have been written by the same or different authors. If the same author wrote and published many advertisements for different sex workers across different locations, this could indicate a trafficking ring operating behind the advertisement.

The second technique links bitcoin accounts to the advertisements they paid for. This technology has yet to be implemented at a large scale, but it presents undeniable advantages such as the automation of operations and their scalability. The idea is to link advertisements to specific Bitcoin transactions by using the available information on them in the mempool: the price and the time the transaction was made. This makes it possible to identify to what advertisement a transaction was linked because, on advertisement websites such as Backpage, the system does not wait for the network to confirm the transaction, it directly posts the advertisement instead. In comparing timestamps of the appearance of advertisements on websites with payments enables one to identify the transaction linked to each advertisement. For example, if several advertisements from different locations were paid for by the same Bitcoin wallet this could be a sign of trafficking activities.   

These two techniques developed by Portnoff can be used in conjunction or separately. Their undeniable advantage lies in their automation and scalability. In this regard, automated techniques, such as PhotoDNA, have already been used to identify online victims of child sexual abuse and it is only a matter of time before those fighting human trafficking are able to utilize these tools in their work.


These projects are currently either in stages of development or in the first phases of implementation, but their potential opens a way forward in the fight against human trafficking. They arm law enforcement and NGO workers with tools that are more than slingshots and could potentially enable them to overcome two problems at once: the lack of expertise and the lack of human resources. The expertise will definitely be provided by the technologies themselves, while their automation and scalability would remedy the need for human resources. It is likely that these tools would mostly deploy their full potential for purposes of identification and prove to be less effective when used for prevention. However, they pave the way on how human trafficking could be combated in the future throughout its various stages.


*Sibel Top is  a Ph.D. fellow at the Research Foundation, Flanders (FWO). She is part of the research group on Fundamental Rights and Constitutionalism (FRC) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), which is coordinating the DESIrE project on human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. This blogpost was based on a briefing paper prepared in the framework of the DESIrE project on the use of technology to combat human trafficking.

** The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC.

Edited by Cecily Bacon, Director of Research and Projects

Photo Credit: Project DESIrE

About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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