Why Using Hacking To “Eradicate” Sex Trafficking Is Dangerous

By Noah Berlatsky

As you can tell from any movie screen at the multiplex, battling against evil is exciting, virtuous, stimulating, and an all around good time. No wonder than that the website for the January 23–24 conference #HackTrafficking4Good is so ebullient. The conference was organized in Boston to bring programmers together to help law enforcement battle the scourge of sex trafficking. The site sports fist-pumping slogans like “Eradicate sex trafficking . . . one hack at a time,” and “Using data science to stop sex trafficking . . . for good.” Conference materials link to frightening sex trafficking statistics; 325,000 children are at risk of becoming sex trafficking victims. The average age of entry into the sex trade is 12–14. Young girls are in danger. Hackers, to the rescue.

Unfortunately, the righteous, adrenalin-fueled approach to battling sex trafficking isn’t likely to help much of anyone. The statistics on the site are grossly exaggerated and confused. The claim that hundreds of thousands of children are at risk of sex trafficking is based on what the Washington Post calls “nonsense facts,” and the 12–14 year age of entry is similarly dubious. In fact, the whole narrative that pimps are systematically kidnapping children and forcing them into sexual slavery doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Most underage people who trade sex either work alone or with peers. They engage in survival sex because they are fleeing abusive situations at home, and lack access to shelter and food, not because they are in the thrall of criminal gangs.

The vision of noble hackers helping police to swoop in and save exploited women is dear to the hearts of anti-prostitution groups like conference sponsor Demand Abolition. But it’s also fanciful — not least because police are in fact one of the chief dangers faced by sex workers and trafficking victims alike. When researcher Tara Burns surveyed sex workers in Alaska, she found that 26% had been sexually assaulted by police, and 9% had been robbed or beaten by officers. Almost three quarters had witnessed a crime they didn’t report because they believed they would be arrested or ignored. A survey of street-based sex workers in New York City also reported that 30% had experience police violence, including in some cases sexual harassment. Youth who trade sex for survival similarly report regular police abuse.

But the HackTrafficking4Good conference doesn’t see law enforcement as a potential threat. Instead, the conference is focused on helping police with surveillance. Conference documents include descriptions of a number of “challenges” for attendees to try to solve. For example, hackers are asked to create tools to profile johns who leave large numbers of reviews on message boards, and to develop bots to communicate with johns and extract information. Another challenge encourages hackers to develop data visualization tools to follow escort website activity and trends in select cities.

Kitty Winter, a Boston sex work activist, has been active on the #HackTrafficking4Good tag, trying to educate the conference on the dangers of providing tools for law enforcement. “Police are not a safe resource for sex workers,” she told me by email. “There are too many instances of harassment, intimidation and rape from the police. Even though clients are the focus of these tools, the police would be given more access to the online sex industry, and thus, more opportunities to harass, intimidate, or rape us.”

Mistress Matisse, a professional dominatrix and writer, pointed out that the hackers themselves could be a potential source of danger:

“Gathering information on preferred venues and providers?” she said. “That’s us! That’s where we work. This is teaching who-knows-who how to stalk sex workers. I mean, really, how did they vet the people they let participate in this hackathon? Is Demand Abolition training up a whole new generation of men with the tools to stalk, harass, rape, and possibly even murder sex workers? What is their accountability if someone takes the tools DA has taught them and uses them criminally?”

A big part of the problem with the conference was that it did not include sex workers themselves. No sex worker organizations were invited to participate, and sex workers speaking on the hashtag about their concerns were ignored. This is especially problematic because evidence suggests that the people best positioned to report coercion and abuse in the sex industry are sex workers themselves. Winter pointed to recommendations by the British journal The Lancet, which discusses the importance of including sex workers in anti-trafficking initiatives. “If the conference had sex worker input,” Winter said, “the event would not have included government or police. I can’t speak for all sex workers on further actions. However, personally, I would change the focus of the conference from creating tools for police use to creating tools for sex worker use to help us monitor our own industry for sex trafficking.”

Computer hacking and programming is probably not the best way to approach the issue at all, according to Matisse. “These are really stigmatized, vulnerable people,” she told me. “This is not a video game where you score points for how many you can hack.” She added, “Everyone wants there to be a sexy answer for this. And the answer continues to be, if there are people who are being exploited sexually, what they need is non-violent peer outreach and access to social services.” With the resources that the Demand Abolition put into the conference, Matisse said, they could have run a weekend clinic for immigrants who face labor exploitation in any industry, but who can’t come forward because of fear of deportation. They could have connected people in poverty with emergency shelters and food banks. They could have worked on creating no strings attached housing for youth forced from their homes, so they won’t be forced to trade sex for shelter.

Instead the conference focused on providing police with tools to monitor and catalog consensual sex work clients and providers, in the hopes of maybe stumbling on a sex trafficking victim. This is logical from the perspective of anti-prostitution activists and their police partners, who argue that basically all prostitution is exploitation, and that shutting the industry down and arresting johns is a good thing in itself. But if the goal is to help disempowered people, then surveillance, stings, and cyberstalking aren’t the answer. If you want to reduce abuse, you need to find a way to hack the system that increases the power of marginalized people, not of the police.

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Lead image credit: Dennis Skley, Flickr