Much like drug dealers, human sex traffickers have started largely relying on prepaid mobile phones to conduct business, according to a new report by the University of Southern California.
"Mobile phones are playing a far more central role in this than we had ever thought," says Mark Latonero, co-author of the report, The Rise of Mobile and the Diffusion of Technology-Facilitated Trafficking. "Mobile is the new frontline battleground in the fight against trafficking."
Whereas just a few years ago, many human traffickers used Craigslist, Facebook, and other social media sites to recruit sex workers and solicit clients, much of that has moved over to cell phones, Latonero says.
According to a recent report, 19 percent of all phone numbers used on a Los Angeles adult online classified site were registered to MetroPCS, just one of many pre-paid cell phone carriers. That percentage is more than five times MetroPCS's national market share of 3.4 percent.
There has been a renewed interest in taking down human trafficking rings since President Barack Obama spoke on the subject to the United Nations in September. He said at the time trafficking "must be called by its true name: modern slavery."
It has been estimated that more than 20 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking each year—many of them women and children.
The anonymity provided by "burner" cell phones—they can be bought at nearly any convenience store without an ID—makes them attractive to drug dealers and human traffickers. They are also relatively cheap and can be thrown away if a criminal feels like the police might be on his or her trail.
"Looking back at our study, it seems so obvious that the business of human trafficking would be using mobile phones," he says. "But we weren't aware of it before and a lot of law enforcement offices weren't focused on it either."
Though it makes sense that traffickers would use prepaid phones to do their business, Latonero says they use them in a slightly different way than drug dealers. Traffickers can use cell phones to set up meetings with clients, but they can also use a smart phone's GPS signal to make sure the people they're exploiting don't try to run away.
"They can keep tabs on those they're exploiting with the various apps that tell them where their [workers] are," Latonero says. "There's a control element to it."
While the trafficking business is going mobile, Latonero says it's not all bad news. Whereas 10 years ago, there was rarely any sort of digital trail of trafficking activity, now law enforcement can set up sting operations and can infiltrate human trafficking rings.
"Once it moved to digital and network technologies, [we gained] a perspective into the business and social dynamics on a scale we never had access to before," he says. "It's a real opportunity."
In his United Nations speech, Obama said technology has to be used in the fight against modern traffickers.
"Just as they are now using technology and the Internet to exploit their victims, we're going to harness technology to stop them," Obama said . "We're encouraging tech companies and advocates and law enforcement … to develop tools that our young people can use to stay safe online and on their smart phones."
Latonero said it was a "landmark speech" and it's important Obama realizes technology can help crack down on the crime.
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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.