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Microsoft Pri0

Welcome to Microsoft Pri0: That's Microspeak for top priority, and that's the news and observations you'll find here from Seattle Times technology reporter Matt Day.

July 17, 2012 at 2:50 PM

From Microsoft Research Faculty Summit: technology in human trafficking

Microsoft yesterday and today is holding its 13th annual Research Faculty Summit, which provides a forum for researchers from academia, government and Microsoft to discuss the latest advances in computing research and technology.

More than 400 people representing 238 institutions in 30 countries are at the event.

Among the many panels was one I attended today on the role of technology in human trafficking.

Technology has facilitated the spread of human trafficking — via online advertising, social networking, chat room and forums, etc., the researchers on the panel said.

But technology is also helping combat human trafficking, said the panelists, some of whom are working on technologies to do just that.

“Surprisingly, law enforcement are not equipped with the types of advanced technologies which would really help in gathering evidence and investigating crime” involving human trafficking, said Mark Latonero, research director with the Center on Communication Leadership & Policy at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at University of Southern California.

It’s inefficient, for instance, for law enforcement agencies to have people look through individual posts online in chat rooms for johns, trying to piece together clues. And with the Internet, there’s much more information out there to sift through.

Hence, the need to develop technology that helps scrape data from the Web, and that analyzes big data.

Latonero and others on the panel also talked about how they’re working on machine learning: Getting computers to look for some of the same things that law enforcement officers might look for on chat rooms and websites as they try to piece together clues.

“Technology is a gold mine of evidence,” said Janis Wolak, senior researcher at the Crimes against Children Research Center of the University of New Hampshire.

Wolak also talked about how technology could also be used to help victims by offering them apps and technologies that could help them access resources such as food, shelter and health care so they can feel safe.

Social scientist danah boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research who organized today’s panel, said Microsoft is working on trying to understand more about human trafficking, and technology’s role within it.

Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit, for instance, developed a technology that could identify the probability of images that come in through Microsoft properties (such as Hotmail and SkyDrive) matching some of the most egregious examples of child pornography as identified by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The goal is to understand more about the complexity of the human trafficking problem with the idea that “technology can disrupt organized crime if we understand enough about it,” boyd said.

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