Criminal justice experts and academics, including a Baylor University professor, are teaming up to provide a technological edge to the law enforcement battle against human trafficking.
Stacie Petter, professor of information systems and business analytics at Baylor, is part of an interdisciplinary group that earned a $249,998 planning grant from National Science Foundation to study the scope of the challenge posed by human traffickers.
“Our focus is on domestic sex trafficking and how it has evolved due to the internet and other forms of technology,” she said. “Specifically, we will be looking at three big things: how do criminals use technology in human trafficking? How is the criminal justice system using technology to fight human trafficking? And what interventions can be useful?”
The information gathered in the research process will be used next year to apply for a grant to implement solutions.
Traffickers have an advantage over authorities because they can easily move victims between different jurisdictions to hamper investigations, she added. “If we can better understand how these criminal networks and groups interact, maybe we can identify an edge for law enforcement to identity and apprehend these predators.”
But the researchers have their work cut out for them, too, because of the cunning and ingenuity human traffickers display in using smartphone and internet technology to conduct their sordid business.
“If we look at a criminal enterprise as a business — an illicit business — then we need to look at where crime intersects with technology,” she said. “One of those places is social media, which sex traffickers use to groom victims. We know they are using smartphones and (virtual) chatting to interact with their victims and with their customers.”
“If we look at a criminal enterprise as a business — an illicit business — then we need to look at where crime intersects with technology.”
The team also will study the means and extent to which traffickers and their clients are using electronic and digital tools to make and receive payments. “We know that cash payments are most common, but we know some are transferring money online to run their businesses,” Petter said.
The technology and practices law enforcement agencies currently use to counter human trafficking also will be examined, she said. “The challenge is to identify and create technology that can assist in the investigation of human trafficking. Some of these already exist but are not being used effectively across law enforcement.”
Sometimes that’s due to a resistance to adopting and using technology, which is another facet that will be studied. “In our research that led to this grant, we have seen it’s not always technology that’s the problem, but social and institutional problems play a part as well.”
Petter said the project appeals to her professional interest in business systems and also to her passion for the victims of sex trafficking. “This is an opportunity to use my time and my talents to help with an issue I care about and to blend these two worlds together.”
The project was inspired when Petter and former Baylor information systems Ph.D. student Laurie Giddens discovered they shared a heart for human trafficking victims who often are minimized in society due to their past experiences.
Petter and Giddens, now a professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, eventually worked together on research for DeliverFund, an organization that seeks to help law enforcement end human trafficking.
“What really captured my attention were the ways they use advanced technologies to conduct human trafficking investigations,” Giddens said about the organization in a recent Baylor story. “I called Stacie, and she was also excited about them. We reached out to DeliverFund and asked to collaborate on a research project. We have been working with them since.”
Both women now lead the NSF-funded project, which also set a record in Baylor’s department of information systems and business analytics.
“Grant funding is not common in schools of business, and NSF funding is even rarer,” department chair Jonathan Trower said. “This grant is the largest externally funded research project so far in our department.”