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The exploitation of human trafficking can take the form of sexual slavery, forced labor, surrogate child-bearing and even organ harvesting. Regardless of the motives, it is a blight on humanity and combating it has proved a complex and so far frustrating task.

According to the International Labor Organization, there were approximately 2.5 million victims of human trafficking in 2005. The problem affects all sectors of society, but some are more susceptible than others. Generally it is the most vulnerable who are targeted—the poor, the unemployed, the uneducated, the young, undocumented foreign workers, and oppressed ethnic minorities. Women and underage girls are the most common victims, although men and boys also are victimized.

Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, governments, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, and of anti-trafficking advocates, furthering progress against this scourge remains a critical humanitarian issue. Human trafficking is one of the largest, best-organized and most profitable types of crime, ranking behind only the illegal weapons and drug trades. It violates numerous national and international laws and has ensnared more than 25 million people around the world. And although those in developed nations may assume that this is a problem only of the developing world, it is estimated that there are more than 250,000 victims in the United States alone.

The problem is not merely one of criminal violence. The criminals who perpetrate and benefit from this trafficking are taking full advantage of information technology in plying their trade. We must work together to bring the advances in socio-technical research, privacy, interoperability, data sharing, cloud, and mobility to bear against trafficking.

Microsoft believes the technology industry should play an important role in the efforts to disrupt human trafficking just as it has in fighting other types of digital crime: by funding and facilitating research and harnessing advanced technologies to more effectively disrupt this trade. Microsoft and its partners are active in making the tools and technology available to law enforcement and other agencies to carry on this fight.

This crime is a classic example of a transnational, asymmetric threat. The organizations are small and not well armed compared to the nations in which they operate, but they are adept at eluding, confounding and circumventing traditional law enforcement and security organizations, often through the use of up-to-date technology that enables real time, anonymous international communication. Like the Internet, traffickers do not recognize national boundaries, and they use tools such as the Dark Web—the uncharted and hidden sites that support criminal and underground activities—online social media, and the cloud to locate, recruit and transport victims.

At the same time, law enforcement and other public safety organizations often lag in the adoption of these technologies for their own use. These agencies are conservative by nature and are constrained by austerity budgets that limit their ability to acquire the latest tools and gain expertise in using them. This makes it imperative that the IT industry help these agencies leverage the power of technology to combat human trafficking and make the challenge less one-sided.

In upcoming posts I will outline some of the ways that disruptive technologies such as data analysis, case management solutions, communication and collaboration tools, public outreach, and cloud computing can be brought into play to even the odds and alter the risk-and-reward equation for traffickers; making the traffic in human beings a more risky, less profitable, and less attractive operation.