An Interview with Tim Palmbach

Professor Tim Palmbach of The University of New Haven describes a project he started to combat human trafficking using DNA.




My name’s Professor Tim Palmbach, and I’m a professor at the University of New Haven. Before that, I was the crime lab director at the State of Connecticut. About two years ago, I started a project that very much involves the use of DNA in the battle against human trafficking.

So the starting point is that there is 30-some million people that are currently modern day slaves. When I started research, well, how is that possible? What are we doing about it? We have technology. We have tools. We’ve come a long way. What was amazing to me is we’re doing almost nothing.

An obvious result of that would be that we’re having very few arrests and very few convictions. On the rare occasion that we do get a conviction, it’s usually of a very low-level player, so the net effect of that is really none.

I began to ask myself what is it about my technologies or my skills that could make a difference. Very quickly, for anybody who is even related to the world of forensic DNA analysis, this is an obvious choice.

So again, human trafficking, 30 million, all over the place. It includes more labor trafficking than sexual exploitation, though sexual exploitation seems to get more attention. Labor can affect men, women, children, can cut across all different countries and their lifestyles are equally horrific. The sexual exploitation is more women and young girls, but there is also males in some societies, so it does cover all of those bases.

What DNA does, and what it can do, in the short term/immediate is that it gives these victims their identity back. The number one methodology of these traffickers is to physically remove their identity. Physically isolate them from friends and family and foundation. Take all their credentials and passports away and maybe give them a fake one. So they practically and psychologically strip them of their identity. One of the things we want to say to them is they can never take this identity from you. For a person to have an identity is for a person to be empowered, and it’s the first step in them getting the courage to make the decision to get out and do something different, and hopefully someday cooperate in the criminal justice system. So, that’s the big thing.

Long term, long term, and a lot of people are going to have to deal with their real worries and their concerns over privacy and DNA databases, which I think we can factually explain to them why they don’t need to be as worried. We’ll get to a point where we’ll have this vulnerable population which is in the millions in a databank and it will be their permanent identity. It will be their source of protection.

So, this organized crime, trans-national movement of these victims will be greatly hampered by the use of DNA technology, particularly when we get to the point of implementing it in border stations and immigration control.

As we do that, we’ll solve other problems as well. We have a better handle on immigration. It’s certainly a very powerful counter-terrorism tool. So, it’s just a win win win all the way around if we’ll make the commitment, which is a very large commitment, to create these datatbases.