14th October 2020

By Richard Kjellgren

As I write the first sentence of this blog post, I officially entered Year 2 of my PhD, and it dawned on me that it has been 217 days since I last set my foot inside my cosy office at the University of Stirling. As we all do our best to adapt to this new ‘normal’, it becomes painfully obvious how central internet and communication technologies (ICTs) are to our daily lives, whether as lecturers, tutors, or PhD students slowly chipping away at our theses.

I think – compared to many of my fellow PhD colleagues with elaborate and exhilarating plans of fieldwork both close and far off – I can consider myself particularly lucky during these peculiar circumstances. A big chunk of my thesis involves online data, that I can collect whilst, quite literally, sipping away at my coffee while my carefully programmed bots do all of the hard labour.

Just as our daily lives are increasingly dependent upon ICTs, criminal networks seeking to exploit others are also increasingly utilising ICTs to streamline their operations. As a criminologist, I have a keen interest in how everyday technologies are used in the context of some of the more logistically complex crimes. In my case, I am studying sex trafficking and exploitation within the UK’s off-street sex market.

Whilst all of us within academia certainly are dependent upon ICTs to carry out our daily duties, it is important to point out that ICTs are not necessary to commit the crime of sex trafficking. However, the emergence of ICTs serves to fundamentally reconfigure the trafficking crime script. Simply put, we can consider a crime to consist of two different components: first, scenes – the logistical steps within the crime-committing process; and second, a variety of actions available for committing the crime in question. With regards to sex trafficking, the recruitment, transportation and exploitation can be perceived as scenes, and for instance, the deception of a victim as a potential action required to commit the crime. In its essence, the emergence and widespread adoption of ICTs allow for more flexibility in the execution of the crime script: criminal networks and organised crime groups have more tools at their disposal to facilitate their operations.

So what precisely is the role of ICTs in this context? It has, for instance, been reported that criminal networks and organised crime groups engaged in sex trafficking has used ICTs for a variety of purposes. This includes: the recruitment of victims by false employment adverts, or directly seeking out and grooming victims through social media; monitoring the transportation of victims through ICTs, and obtaining counterfeit travel documentation online; and moreover, to monitor, control and advertise victims online during the exploitation phase. My research is focused on the latter: the market prerogatives of criminal networks advertising victims on online classifieds and similar websites.

Of course, just as for any other online-mediated activity, we all leave digital footprints whilst living part of our lives online, and this also applies to criminal networks involved in exploitation. However, we have a quite limited understanding of online data pertaining to the sex market. We do know that the sex market is diverse and encapsulates a variety of experiences, ranging from independent sex workers with high levels of autonomy, to individuals that are severely exploited at the other end of the spectrum. Nevertheless, there is still much uncertainty with regards to how these diverse experiences are manifested through online data, which, in this context, would primarily refer to online escort adverts.

Police forces across the UK and beyond are monitoring online platforms advertising sexual services to identify individuals vulnerable towards exploitation; however, given the vast quantities of data, their uncertain epistemological qualities, and partial and fragmented nature, this is – to say the least – a very challenging task. Nevertheless, this challenge also provides us criminologists with ample room to both apply our skills, but also to acquire new ones.

The sheer quantity of online data produced in my research context means that the need for deep, contextual understandings and theory regarding sexual labour and issues related to exploitation has perhaps never been as important as it currently is, during this so-called age of ‘Big Data’. On the other hand, the challenging nature of working with large, noisy, and heterogenous datasets has forced me to leave my comfort zone – that is, thematic analysis, social network analysis, and statistical analysis – to acquire the skills needed to make sense of the patterns prevalent within these datasets. Amongst other things, this has taught me to not only automate online data collection, but also, machine learning and various forms of text mining approaches. What I find particularly intriguing is the combination of traditional social scientific methods with novel methods that are well-suited to traversing large quantities of both structured and unstructured data.

I sincerely believe that as many traditionally ‘offline’ crimes become augmented with online dimensions, the greater the need is for criminologists to become increasingly digitally literate and to venture outside of our methodological comfort zones.

Additionally, as algorithms are given significant power in our contemporary society, it becomes even more important to acquire the skills necessary to question their contribution to injustices, the production of knowledge, and even the criminalisation of certain data themselves.

Whenever we are finally returning to campus, one thing remains certain: I will continue to live a large part of my life online for the remainder of my PhD, as I am trying to decipher the enigmas and epistemological nature of online data. No matter how much I miss the days of attending seminars and conferences in person – or the fact that I was really looking forward to carrying out some fieldwork to get a break from the virtual part of my thesis – at least I am fortunate enough to have loads of data to keep me occupied for a very, very long time.

Richard Kjellgren is a second-year PhD student based at the University of Stirling. His thesis is titled ‘Connecting the dots: mapping covert networks, vulnerability and exploitation within the off-street sex market‘. You can find out more about Richard and his work on the SCCJR website https://www.sccjr.ac.uk/about-us/people/richard-kjellgren/

Images c/o Canva

New Media, Surveillance and Technology