The Role of Technology in Child Sex Trafficking

Summary. This research will provide a map of how law enforcement understands the benefits and obstacles of technology in child sex trafficking.  We will collect data via an online survey to gather information from knowledgeable law enforcement investigators about information they have learned from perpetrators and victims, as well as their impressions of the benefits and obstacles of the use of technology in these crimes.  


Sexual victimizations are serious crimes that harm a significant percentage of children and adolescents.  A national study of youth (ages 2 to 17) revealed 2% had experienced sexual victimization in the past year and 5% in their lifetime 1.  Further, the National Crime Victimization Survey showed that, in 2009, the overall violent crime victimization rate for teenagers (ages 12-15) was more than twice the average national rate 2.  Child sex trafficking is a particularly egregious subgroup of sexual victimizations because, in addition to being sexually abused and assaulted, victims are treated as commodities and used for financial and economic gain.  Child sex trafficking crimes include criminal networks profiting from trafficking underage victims for sex, but also overlap with the relatively more common crimes of juvenile prostitution and the production and sale of child pornography. 
Much social activity is migrating to the Internet, so it should not be surprising that this is true for crime in general and commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking in particular.  This means, of course, that efforts to prevent and prosecute these crimes need to migrate to the internet and other technologies as well.  These efforts, however, are still in their early phases, and more research and practice is warranted to develop better methods to identify and investigate child sex trafficking in all its forms.
Empirical research on child trafficking is almost non-existent, and summaries of case characteristics and ways that new technology is involved in such cases must rely on legal reports and media stories3,4.  These stories suggest that child trafficking criminals and those facilitating juvenile prostitution are making use of online resources.  The Internet provides a way to advertise escort services and massage parlors to a wide audience.  Adolescent girls may be marketed in such places alongside of adults.  Technology may provide an efficient means of reaching obscure target audiences - including immigrant groups that may be the focus of international traffickers; pedophiles looking for access to very young children; people with extreme sexual tastes (e.g., sadism, bondage, bestiality); and those interested in child pornography.
Sex traffickers may believe the technology offers ways to hide their activities, for example by encrypting communications and picture files and using wireless technologies that may be difficult to trace to specific locations.  They may use technology to make connections with other offenders, for example networking among pimps or child pornography rings, or for business aspects of trafficking such as online banking and ordering clothes and other goods for victims.  Finally, technology may also be used by youth who are engaged in prostitution on their own in order to advertise their services and find clients 5
The current study will result in information that can help to ground public policy discussions, focus the development of law enforcement responses to problems caused by the use of networked technologies in child sex trafficking. The research will draw up-to-date information from front line participants in the fight against child sex trafficking. The research will also summarize law enforcement concerns about the developments in new technology and suggest ways that technology companies can assist law enforcement in identifying and investigating child sex trafficking.  For example, there may be ways that collaborations between technology experts and law enforcement can improve reporting systems or evidence collection from chat conversations, social networking sites, and computer images. 

Goals and Objectives

To gather qualitative and quantitative data via an online survey of a sample of law enforcement investigators, collecting detailed information on technology’s role in facilitating child sex trafficking and understanding the benefits and obstacles for law enforcement.


Data will be gathered through a web-based data collection portal.   Respondents will include the director of all ICAC Task Forces in the U.S., as well as the ICAC contact for all ICAC affiliate agencies in the U.S. (n=~3800).
Names and email addresses for each of the ICAC Task Force directors and their affiliates will be uploaded into Vovici.  This program is a multi-functioning survey tool that allows you to create your data collection instrument, organize your participant list, host the data in a  secured environment, and allows for downloading data directly into SPSS, a statistical data analysis program used at UNH.   Participants will receive one email reminder if they have not completed the survey within 2 weeks of invitation and a second email reminder 2 weeks after the first.  Upon completion of the data collection phase of the study, all data will be downloaded from the Vovici servers into SPSS for analysis.
The online survey will ask whether the respondent has investigated a child trafficking crime.  Child sex trafficking is defined as involving minors under the age of 18 by being sold or bought for sex, including victims exploited by pimps and minors acting on their own, both boys and girls.  If yes, it will ask for details about how technology is used in the child trafficking cases they have investigated.  Additionally, in order to assess law enforcement needs in this area, all participants, regardless of whether or not they have investigated such a case will be asked as series of questions about law enforcement needs for investigating and combating child sex trafficking.  For example, we will ask all participants 1) their biggest concerns about the use of technology by child trafficking criminals, and 2) the resources, training, and technical assistance that they believe will be necessary over the next decade for investigating technology-involved trafficking cases.
Funding for this project was provided by Microsoft Research and the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit.


  1.  Finkelhor D, Ormrod RK, Turner HA. Lifetime assessment of poly-victimization in a national sample of children and youth. Child Abuse & Neglect. 2009;33(7):403-411.
  2. Truman JL, Rand MR. Criminal Victimization, 2009. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics;2010. NCJ 231327.
  3. Lantonero M. Human trafficking online:  The role of social networking sites and online classifieds. University of Southern California: Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism;2011.
  4. Fong R, Cardoso JB. Child human trafficking victims:  Challenges for the child welfare system. Evaluation and program planning. 2010;33:311-316.
  5. Eichenwald K. Through the webcam, a boy joins a sordid online world. The New York Times2005;A.

For more information, contact:
Kimberly J. Mitchell, PhD
Crimes against Children Research Center
University of New Hampshire
10 West Edge Drive, Suite 106F
Durham, NH 03824
Phone (603) 862-4533; Fax (603) 862-2899