U.S. congested with human trafficking, but collaboration may offer road to safety

Human trafficking generates billions of dollars in profits per year, second only to drug trafficking as the profitable form of transnational crime. The exploitation of women, men and children for forced labor and sexual acts has permeated the global community. The internet creates both new opportunities for traffickers to exploit vulnerable people around the world, and a platform to identify traffickers in this unlawful industry.

According to the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security reported opening 1,304 investigations possibly involving human trafficking in fiscal year (FY) 2015 (October through September), an increase from 987 in FY 2014. During FY 2015, the Department of Justice secured convictions against 297 traffickers, compared with 184 convictions obtained in FY 2014. Of these, 291 involved predominantly sex trafficking and six involved predominantly labor trafficking, although several involved both.

Sex trafficking and human slavery are certainly nothing new, but the internet has created a dark space for predators to buy and sell people. Today, more than 150,000 escort ads are posted in the U.S. every day, many of them for children. The human trafficking industry enslaves an estimated 27 million people worldwide.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 is interpreted to shield websites that participate in sex trafficking from any criminal liability. On Monday, Congresswoman Ann Wagner introduced the bipartisan States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017. This would allow state authorities to investigate and prosecute websites that facilitate sex trafficking using state criminal statutes that prohibit sex trafficking or sexual exploitation of children. The Act also clarifies that it is unlawful for a provider of an interactive computer service to publish information provided by someone with reckless disregard that the information is a sex trafficking offense. This means that social media, classified ad sites and a host of other computer platforms could be held accountable if it introduces an underage person to a possible sex buyer.

Several public-private partnerships have formed to deter human trafficking. In February, Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT), the Texas Trucking Association and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton brought the trucking industry and law enforcement together to discuss human trafficking. Last year, Paxton’s office partnered with TAT on a series of coalition builds in Lubbock, Tyler, Houston and San Antonio.

On April 4, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered remarks at a workshop hosted by the Governor’s Child Sex-Trafficking Team (CSTT) designed to develop collaborative approaches to recovering child sex-trafficking victims and providing them the services they need to heal and thrive. Attending the event were six multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs) from areas around the state where trafficking is heavily prevalent, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Waco, Austin and San Antonio. The teams are made up of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, child protection and juvenile justice agency personnel, medical and mental health service providers and community and faith-based organizations.

Over the 4-day workshop the MDTs will develop action plans to bring back to their regions and implement a coordinated response to child sex-trafficking in order to bring exploiters of children to justice.

Human trafficking is also monitored in the skies.  Airline Ambassadors International trains workers at airlines and airports how to spot and report cases of human trafficking. It also delivers humanitarian aid around the world and transports sick children who need medical care. The organization began in 1996 and started focusing on human trafficking in 2009. They have held 52 training sessions in the U.S. and abroad since 2011.

The hotel industry is also keeping a watchful eye for strange activity. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy announced that government officials and private partners were taking on a new initiative to provide training for state hotel and motel operators and their employees about the warning signs of human trafficking and how best to report suspicious activity. Most of the sightings have been along Interstate 95. Some of the warning signs of trafficking in a hotel/motel include a child staying for an extended timeframe with few or no possessions, pornography being rented in a room that a child is staying in, and a child appearing to be disoriented, confused, and unrelated to the adult with whom they are staying.

In February, Thorn founder and actor Ashton Kutcher went viral when he gave personal testimony to the U.S. Senate on the tragedy of child trafficking. Kutcher highlighted the public-private partnerships that have enabled his software to succeed, as well as the need to help children once they are found. Thorn creates tech tools specifically geared to helping authorities. In 2011, law enforcement officials in the U.S. turned 22 million images and videos of child abuse over to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to identify victims. Thorn is using machine learning, in which computers learn what advertisements represent a child, and creates an algorithm to predict what other ads are more likely to be associated with a child. That may hopefully reduce the thousands of images of children in circulation.

The organizations also uses facial recognition software that recognizes signs of aging and can identify children from photos. They are working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s database of missing children that could be matched to images from online ads. This helps detectives in tracking down and identifying children.

These digital defenders of children have also created a way for victims and concerned citizens to send a silent text message 24-hours a day. “BeFree” (233733) instantly connects individuals with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, operated by the Polaris Project.

Since 2007, the NHTRC hotline has received more than 70,000 calls from across the country and around the world, connected more than 8,300 victims to assistance and support and reported more than 3,000 cases to law enforcement. NHTRC is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division.