Breaking the Business of Human Trafficking
By Justin Walker
In 2019 alone, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 11,500 situations of human trafficking involving at least one victim or survivor. In total, more than 22,000 victims or survivors were identified that year, with more than 4,000 traffickers and nearly 2,000 suspicious businesses also listed in the organization’s year-end report.
The magnitude of human trafficking is difficult to grasp for the average American. The issue has seen a considerable rise in public awareness thanks to movies, television shows and news reports on the topic. However, it can often lead viewers to believe it takes place in a distant land when the reality is it also occurs right across town.
“It is so easy in our day-to-day lives to forget that slavery is still in practice today,” Stacie Petter, the Ben H. Williams Professor of Information Systems and Business Analytics at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, said. “Many think about slavery as a practice that ended two centuries ago, but modern slavery is real and around us, whether we can see it or not.”
Even in her current home of Waco, Texas, Petter has witnessed stories of survival. Not long after moving to Baylor in 2015, Petter read a newspaper article about a local high school student who was a survivor of trafficking. It made her realize just how widespread the problem is.
Petter’s primary research focuses on why people do or do not use technology, and she has since been able to blend her research interest into the issue of human trafficking.
“Technology is embedded all throughout the criminal process of sex trafficking,” she said. “Traffickers will lure and try to recruit victims through all kinds of social networking sites. They often communicate through smartphones and might even send money through payment platforms such as Venmo or PayPal.”
These actions utilize technology, which creates a trail for law enforcement to track, Petter said.
“If we can start to understand how criminals are using technology, we could start to better understand how to find indicators in the evidence that are needed to identify victims, rescue survivors and prosecute traffickers,” she said.
One example of this type of technology is DeliverFund’s Platform for Analysis and Targeting of Human Traffickers (PATH) system, DeliverFund Chief of Operations Michael Fullilove said. The PATH system allows for easy input and searching of data related to trafficking, he said.
“What we are doing is providing technology that allows for coordination and deconfliction of human trafficking investigations, regardless of geographic location,” Fullilove said. “We also have additional tools that are much more adept at collecting the appropriate human trafficking data at a larger scale than preexisting technology.”
PATH has a unique take compared to other systems in operation. While others identify where and how to search for advertisements, phone numbers and additional information related to human trafficking, PATH takes a more active approach, identifying the networks and connections associated with those ads.
“There might be a person attached to the ad with a phone number,” Petter said. “Who owns that number? There is an email address. Who owns that email? I do not know if there are other tools as specific as PATH trying to find the links among sex trafficking activity.”
DeliverFund, a non-profit intelligence organization intimately involved in all aspects of human trafficking, provides PATH training to law enforcement officers, which gives them practical experience with the system, Fullilove said. The system is very intuitive, but an officer’s ability to adopt technology will impact their success with PATH, he said.
Petter and Fullilove’s paths crossed when they co-authored the study, “Information Technology as a Resource to Counter Domestic Sex Trafficking in the United States,” alongside Laurie Giddens, assistant professor of Information Systems at the University of North Texas. The research article observed the PATH training courses, included interviews with law enforcement and DeliverFund staff, and reviewed technology usage logs.
“It was surprising to find how difficult it is for law enforcement to investigate these cases,” Giddens said. “It is difficult for many reasons as human trafficking is very complex.”
Some of the challenges include survivor hesitancy in seeking help from law enforcement, as well as finding the information, intelligence and resources they need to succeed, Giddens said. While they want to do their job and help people, officers still have to overcome many obstacles.
Petter and Giddens have continued their work in this area as well. The pair were awarded a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which will help them plan for future research. With the grant, they created a multidisciplinary team consisting of academic experts from various fields, including nursing, economics and criminal justice, as well as professionals ranging from non-profits, law enforcement, prosecutors and software vendors.
“We are trying to think about the approach to this problem of how criminals use information technology when conducting sex trafficking and how the criminal justice system uses technology or not in the fight against sex trafficking,” Petter said. “Through these workshops, we are trying to identify a research agenda and what we might be able to do for future grants.”
Petter and Gidden’s approach to human trafficking has been from a business perspective, Petter said, which might have been missing from the conversation before.
“Trafficking is a business,” Petter said. “In the Business School, we understand why businesses form, how they fail and how they succeed. This could be one way that we reverse engineer and figure out how to break apart the business.”
Petter appreciates being able to use her talents and skills as a researcher in a way that allows her to make a difference—not only in society but also in individual lives.
“Being able to help spread the word about the importance of human trafficking and being able to use my talents and abilities to try to demonstrate how we can use what we’ve been given by God to make a difference in society is really meaningful at this time.”