The Tech Dilemma: Sex Trafficking Enabled

03/13/2017 04:09 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2017

We tend to think of human trafficking as a foreign issue, not something that is happening in our own backyard. However, Silicon Valley and the surrounding Bay Area is considered one of the largest hubs of human trafficking in the United States. In response to the problem, San Francisco and other Bay Area cities have launched anti-trafficking task forces to identify gaps in services, improve policies, and bolster city governmental response to human trafficking. Yet, we can’t just rely on our local governments to solve this issue. For those of us who work in the tech sector, there are many things we can do. We must learn to recognize signs of human trafficking, so that we can help raise awareness of an issue that may be happening right in front of us every day. We must also learn how the technology we create is contributing to the issue. The following information is shared by three local anti-trafficking non-profit organizations: Genice Jacobs of abolitionistmom.org, Vanessa Russell of Love Never Fails, and Ehb Teng of ATHack! Inc.

Sex trafficking of youth has been escalating over the past decade.

Poverty, abuse, and neglect are risk factors. Foster youth, runaways, homeless, unaccompanied minors, and LGBTQ-identified youth are the most vulnerable. Technology, for all of its disruptive capacity for change has rapidly enabled sex trafficking in a number of ways.

Social Media and Anonymous Chat Apps/Sites

The proliferation of social media sites has created easy access to our digitally raised youth. Predators can learn about them through their social feeds and in turn manipulate them through fake profiles. Pedophiles and sex buyers set up their own social media sites in the dark web to share photos and tips on how to go undetected when buying children for sex.

Apps and sites like KIK, Snapchat, and Chatroulette make it easy for predators to target youth while hiding behind a wall of anonymity. It’s all fun and games sharing and chatting with strangers until our youth come in contact with the wrong person who says just the right thing to ensnare them.

Online Marketplaces

Sites like Redbook, Backpage, and Craigslist have become marketing platforms for sex traffickers, enabling them to promote exploitation with ease. It’s far too easy to create ad after ad even after being flagged by the community. Despite the argument that legitimate sex workers are able to use these platforms as safe ways to screen potential sex buyers, the majority of the activity is still being conducted by sex traffickers who have no concern for those they are exploiting.

Online Pornography

There is a tremendous sex trafficking problem within the porn industry that is rarely discussed and obfuscated behind the sex positive conversation. The proliferation of online pornography has socialized our youth into misguided sexual norms and is helping to groom next generations of sex buyers as they become accustomed to acting out the more extreme fantasies viewed online. People do not realize that their porn consumption may be sponsoring sexual exploitation and trafficking.

We neither hold any blanket judgement over tech companies. Nor, do we hold a position on the sex positivity conversation. However, it seems like we are faced with a never-ending struggle with the proliferation of technological avenues that exploiters and traffickers can use.

Better awareness and collaboration is key to solving the issue.

“Technologists love hard problems. Young lives are being destroyed by sexual predators on the Internet. We need some of the smartest technologists on the planet to take on this threat.” - Genice Jacobs, abolitionistmom.org

We must continue to find avenues to raise awareness of the issue and educate the public about the ploys of traffickers through awareness campaigns like the current survivor-informed #DisruptSexTrafficking ads seen on S.F. Bay Area Caltrans cars and Samtrans buses. Genice Jacobs, the creator of the campaign and respected anti-trafficking activist behind abolitionistmom.org, hopes that the campaign will inspire members of the tech community to help combat child sexual exploitation.

“All children are vulnerable to human trafficking. PROTECT’s prevention education program educates and empowers teachers, administrators, and students on red flags and trauma informed responses.” - Vanessa Russell, Love Never Fails

Prevention education programs like PROTECT, the brainchild of three anti-trafficking organizations (3Strands Global, Frederick Douglas Family Initiatives, and Love Never Fails), are needed in schools to begin educating our youth at different age levels, so they can learn to recognize the signs of sexual exploitation and predation. This collaborative effort has developed grade-level appropriate and state standard-compliant materials to allow 5th, 7th, 9th and 11th grade teachers to incorporate the topic of human trafficking into their annual educational calendar. The materials illustrate techniques that support identification and prevention.

“We can no longer afford to ignore ways to leverage technology in the fight against human trafficking. Traffickers don't shy away from technology and neither should we." - Ehb Teng, ATHack! Inc.

ATHack! Inc. is a group of activists and technologists whose mission is to foster innovative tech projects to solve human trafficking issues. They have just launched their ATHack Fellowship Program which is designed to create better collaboration between the non-profit and tech sectors. The fellowship will provide tech support/education, mentorship, and funding in discovering innovative tech solutions to human trafficking issues. The application process is currently open to US based non-profits, activists, survivor leaders, and community leaders.

ATHack! is also developing a human trafficking reporting app called GoodTown through its sister company, Diginido Labs LLC. GoodTown is a public reporting and data gathering app (soon to be available on iOS and Android). It's an easy to use, 3 step process for the public to anonymously report suspected exploitation or trafficking in their communities.

Through initiatives like these we can engage the tech community in helping to protect our children. We need all the brilliant minds in the tech and non-profit sectors to create tools that empower youth to protect themselves and design responsible safeguards for children using digital platforms.

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Contributors: Genice Jacobs of abolitionistmom.org, Vanessa Russell of Love Never Fails, and Ehb Teng of ATHack! Inc.

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