large group of people in a rubber raft concerned looks on their faces

Cybersecurity fights human trafficking.


The numbers are astounding: Between 20 million and 40 million people around the world currently live in a modern form of slavery. They may be forced by their traffickers to work, marry, engage in sexual acts, or have their organs removed.

"There's been an uptick in the way that technology has been used to exploit individuals," says Danielle Borrelli, operations coordinator at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's California Cybersecurity Institute (CCI) and an activist in anti-human trafficking for nearly a decade.

In the case of sex trafficking, for instance, it's now much easier to show the enslaved person online via public forums. “You can advertise them to a far greater number of individuals, get a far greater return for the services that person is delivering, and move them from location to location," explains Borrelli. “So you're putting them on a digital platform and increasing the ability to exploit them exponentially."

The 100 or so students Borrelli and her faculty colleagues work with at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo each year take on projects that help them deeply understand and apply this same devastating technology to rescuing those who are exploited and preventing harm from occurring to others.

Because CCI collaborates with leading employers and organizations in the field, Cal Poly students might find themselves trying to penetrate, say, a new Cisco system to make it hacker-resistant. Recently, students created a digital forensics app to help California law enforcement collect digital evidence from a crime scene. “For the most part, it was students who created the solution for the app and the user interface," notes Borrelli. “Now we're looking to make [the app] free and available to all law enforcement in the nation."

“The unique thing about the institute is that we're not just hiring a bunch of computer programmers or computer scientists," she adds. “We still need those, but for the most part, cybersecurity is an issue that is very interdisciplinary, very diverse."