Latonero explains role of big data in fight against trafficking at NYU summit co-sponsored by White House

Research director Mark Latonero gave a presentation today at The Social, Cultural, & Ethical Dimensions of “Big Data”, speaking about his research at CCLP on technology and human trafficking. Hosted by The Data & Society Research Institute in partnership with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and New York University’s Information Law Institute, the event brought together leaders from government, academia, and industry as part of the Obama Administration’s efforts to better understand the implications of big data for privacy and public policy.

Latonero discussed how networked technologies like chat rooms, online classified ads, and social media offer researchers vast amounts of data to analyze, which can help identify both traffickers and victims. Organizations like USC, Microsoft Research, the White House, and Google are all working on data-driven approaches to fight human trafficking. For example, machine learning algorithms can help analyze classified ads to predict whether they’re advertising a real job opportunity or serving as part of a human trafficking scheme.

Latonero leads CCLP’s Technology and Human Trafficking Initiative, launched at a June 2010 multi-stakeholder meeting convened by CCLP in Washington, D.C. at the urging of Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation at the State Department, and Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, head of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. CCLP’s 2012 report, The Rise of Mobile and the Diffusion of Technology-Facilitated Trafficking, was the first effort of its kind to examine the role of mobile technology in both facilitating and combating human trafficking.

Based on this research, Latonero’s presentation at today’s event also examined the complex privacy issues that arise from tracking and analyzing personal information on such a large scale. Do technology companies have a responsibility to report their findings if they’re able to detect evidence of human rights violations occurring on their online services? How can policies balance the privacy needs of individuals with the human rights benefits of analyzing big data?

The White House is also grappling with these issues. John Podesta, a White House counselor who spoke at today’s event, writes on the White House blog [link]: “the President asked me to lead a comprehensive review of the way that ‘big data’ will affect the way we live and work […] and how public and private sectors can spur innovation and maximize the opportunities and free flow of this information while minimizing the risks to privacy.”

Held at NYU Law School, today’s invite-only discussion was followed by a public plenary that was live-streamed online at The Data & Society Research Institute: