Have you ever posted on social media about the school you attend, where you work, or other places you frequent by name? Do you have your first name, your age, or your pronouns in your profile? If you can say yes to any of part of these questions you aren’t alone, countlesspeople have completely mundane information like this as a part of their social media presence. However, it’s a first–hand example of how lax people have become with sharing their personal information online. Studies conducted about Facebook over the last decade have shown that people don’t always understand how to adjust the privacy settings of their personal information, or how much of it is automatically available to the public. An academic article published in 2013 states, “nearly half of all Facebook users gave incorrect answers about who they thought had access to their profile” which was concerning at the time and leads to potential concerns now. It is common for human trafficking “recruiters” to rely on a person’s ignorance about digital privacy to target and exploit them. Over the last five years social networking sites have put an emphasis on privacy regarding how they share personal data with third-parties, but that focus doesn’t help in cases where users are the ones making their data public.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines Personally Identifiable Information (PII) as “any information that permits the identity of an individual to be directly or indirectly inferred, including any information that is linked or linkable to that individual.” Not all PII is as sensitive as others—a first name and email alone aren’t enough information to steal an identity, but a Social Security number and birth date are—but when put together even mundane information can reveal too much about a person. Any government issued documentation like Social Security or Driver’s License numbers, medical or financial records, and official Immigration documents are considered the most sensitive kind of personal information and people typically know the dangers of sharing them. But anything relating to one’s physical appearance or location, email address, gender, or even birthday is still considered Personally Identifiable Information, even though it’s common to share online. Digital photos are also a carrier of personal information since they contain metadata—little pieces of code that hold information about the file—which often include a GPS location of where the photo was taken which could be used to find a person’s whereabouts.
Pieces of PII that are purposefully, or accidentally, publicly available can be put together by human traffickers to not only identify a person but determine individuals who could easily be exploited. Young adults and adolescents are high risk in this regard as a result of their willingness to share information and the likelihood that they are unaware of the dangers that come with sharing such information. It isn’t uncommon for people within that age group to post information like “physical, socio-demographic data (gender, age, [economic] class, occupation, likes and hobbies) or photographs” to market themselves to their peers for emotional validation.Just by skimming through social media sites like Twitter it’s easy to see that plenty of people share not only their age or name, but their affiliation with socially oppressed groups which can identify them as vulnerable to any person intending harm. The most common tactic traffickers use revolves around endearing themselves to their victims and posing as a friend, or potential romantic interest, to gain their trust. By publicizing this sensitive information, a person may become a target, especially if their public profile includes posts about their mental health, financial difficulties, or housing status. Using location-based services like dating apps can also be a concern as they give traffickers a way to identify a victim’s general physical location. Scores of homeless or otherwise at-risk youth also use these sites to find safe places to stay which can increase their risk of being trafficked.
Sharing your age, where you went to lunch, or if you had an awful day on Twitter or Instagram isn’t the end of the world, but people need to become more mindful of what parts of themselves they make public, and how to maintain their safety online. The best way to protect yourself from situations like human trafficking is to educate yourself, and the people you care about, on Personally Identifiable Information and information privacy. People who are vigilant and can recognize signs of trafficking, or how they are possible targets for the industry, are less likely to become victims of it.
Anthony, Brittany. On-Ramps, Intersections, and Exit Routes: A Roadmap for Systems and Industries to Prevent and Disrupt Human Trafficking. July 2018. Accessed October 12, 2021. https://polarisproject.org/human-trafficking-and-social-media/.
Castillo Murillejo, Nc, G. Cárdenas, and H. Rodríguez. Online Tourism, Virtual Identity and Sexual Exploitation. N.p.: Revista Latina de Comunicación Social, 2015. https://doi.org/10.4185/RLCS-2015-1051en.
Sholl, Emma W. “Exhibit Facebook: The Discoverability of Social Media Evidence.” Tulane Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property 16 (2013): 207-30. https://search-ebscohost-com.ccco.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=93438203&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “What Is Personally Identifiable Information?” Homeland Security. Accessed November 7, 2021. https://www.dhs.gov/privacy-training/what-personally-identifiable-information.
U.S. Department of Justice. “Protecting Yourself While Using the Internet.” The United States Attorney’s Office. Last modified April 25, 2015. Accessed October 12, 2021. https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndga/protecting-yourself-while-using-internet.
U.S. Department of Labor. “Guidance on the Protection of Personal Identifiable Information.” U.S. Department of Labor. Accessed November 8, 2021.https://www.dol.gov/general/ppii.