A lack of data – plus data collection challenges – are significant barriers to anti-human trafficking efforts both domestically and globally, witnesses at a Feb. 8 hearing told members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Research and technology have crucial roles in combatting human trafficking. The 2019 UN Interagency Coordination Group Against Trafficking in Persons report states that technology helps combat trafficking by aiding investigations, enhancing prosecutions, raising awareness, providing service to victims, and shedding light on the makeup and operation of trafficking networks.

However, the lack of robust research and data hinders any efforts towards combatting human trafficking globally. For instance, outdated data and the need to rely on estimates are still being used to infer the current state of trafficking problem. And according to Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., ranking member of the committee, the lack of updated and accurate data makes it difficult to understand the full extent of the problem.

Lack of Robust Research 

According to Dr. Louise Shelley, director for the Terrorism Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University, a missing yet crucial facet to combatting human trafficking is robust research that provides an accurate understanding of the problem.

However, researchers lack large-scale sources of microdata on human trafficking, limiting their ability to measure the scale of the problem. There are a handful of studies applying quantitative data to trafficking research. However, no formal research exists that utilizes quantitative data to study causal factors, prevention, or reintegration programs.

Standardizing data and improving data collection can improve and provide a basis for more and better human trafficking research analysis – and ultimately improved outcomes for survivors.

According to Hannah Darnton, associate director at Tech Against Trafficking, key areas of need for research in human trafficking are: trafficking prevention and demand reduction, measuring the prevalence of trafficking; establishing metrics of success for ongoing efforts to combat trafficking; and understanding long- and short-term needs of victims and survivors.

“However, in each of these areas, research and data challenges remain,” Darnton said.

“Without rigorous research, the policy response to trafficking has been uncoordinated and has had limited large-scale success,” said Theresa Harris, interim program director for Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Reliable. “Prevalent estimates have been difficult to ascertain, and greater support for funding into research and data collection are needed.”

GAO Report: Challenges in Obtaining Reliable Data 

There is no reliable estimate on the number of victims of human trafficking in the United States.

According to Dr. Gretta Goodwin, director for Homeland Security and Justice at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the hidden nature of the crime, identity challenges, gaps in data accuracy, and data sharing barriers often hinder the quality and quantity of the data.

Formulating comprehensive national data regarding human trafficking is even more challenging because combining Federal databases is not possible currently.

“Federal databases do not contain comprehensive national data due to differences in the characteristics of these databases, including their intended purposes, specific contents, organization, and any applicable statutory restrictions, and therefore they cannot be combined to provide comprehensive information,” Goodwin said.

In a recent report, GAO reported that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has taken some steps to analyze data in Federal databases regarding this issue, including publishing more detailed statistics on cases. However, at the time of GAO’s report, data analysis efforts were in the early stages, and the department did not have a plan to continue these efforts past November 2021.

“Developing such a plan could provide DOJ and other stakeholders with information to better understand the nature of this problem,” Goodwin said.

Additionally, Goodwin advised that an effective framework or structure for capturing and reporting data can help ensure that an agency is providing useful, accurate, and transparent data to the public regarding human trafficking.

“This provides a foundation for policymakers to make informed decisions,” Goodwin said.

The GAO report also found that data from selected Federal agencies on virtual currency use in connection with human and drug trafficking may not be consistently captured. Consequently, agencies may lack complete data when assessing or reporting on the illicit use of virtual currency in human and drug trafficking.

Virtual currency is increasingly being used illicitly to facilitate human and drug trafficking. The number of suspicious activity reports filed with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network that involve virtual currency and drug trafficking increased significantly – from 252 in 2017 to 1,432 in 2020.

“GAO has made several recommendations on steps agencies can take to address these data collection issues. And agencies have taken some steps to address these recommendations and GAO is monitoring those ongoing efforts,” Goodwin said.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.