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Pivot: Surreptitious Communications Design for Victims of Human Trafficking

Tad Hirsch


Pivot is an outreach tool that provides rescue information to human trafficking victims by hiding messages in generic-looking menstrual pads, which can be discretely distributed by medical workers, social service providers, and other civic groups (figure 1). Pivot is a low-tech, interventionist civic media project that enables citizens to take direct action addressing a pressing public issue. It exemplifies surreptitious communications design, a strategy that emphasizes concealment and obfuscation to deliver messages for intended audiences without detection or interference by adversaries.

Figure 1: Anti-human trafficking messaging, printed on water-soluble paper and inserted into generic sanitary pad packaging


Human trafficking refers to the illegal trade in human beings for forced or compulsory labor (ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour Results and Methodology 2012). Human trafficking is most commonly associated with prostitution and sexual exploitation, but also occurs in a variety of industrial, agricultural, and domestic labor contexts. Although precise numbers are difficult to come by, there are an estimated 20.9 million victims globally, of which 75% are women and girls (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2012).

Human trafficking has emerged as a key global human rights issue. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
marked July 30, 2014 the first “United Nations World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.”1 In the United States, President Obama has made human trafficking a top human rights priority, declaring “our fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time” (The White House 2012). 

There have been numerous print, broadcast, and social media campaigns to raise awareness of human trafficking and solicit donations for anti-trafficking groups (see for example, the United Nations’ “Blue Heart”2 and New York City’s “Let’s End Human Trafficking”3  campaigns). The Pivot project complements these efforts, but focuses on direct intervention by outreach workers and civic organizations.


Pivot was developed by the Public Practice Studio,4 a multi-disciplinary design and research studio at the University of Washington. Students and faculty worked closely with the Washington Anti-Trafficking Network (WARN),5 a network of organizations across Washington State that advocate against human trafficking and provide direct relief to victims. WARN serves all victims of human trafficking regardless of age, country of origin, legal status in the United States, or industry in which the trafficking occurred. WARN provides clients with free, confidential access to a variety of critical services including medical and mental health treatment, immigration and legal assistance, interpretation services, and access to safe housing, food and clothing. 

WARN has developed a robust organizational and communications infrastructure that enables the network to provide critical services to victims anywhere across Washington State, usually within 24 hours. However, victim response organizations like WARN struggle with outreach and continually seek innovative, effective ways to connect with victims who remain under their captors’ control.

Design Challenges

Pivot is intended to help victims free themselves. According to anti-trafficking experts, victims are rarely rescued through outside intervention but rather “self-rescue” when they have the opportunity and are prepared to take action (Morris 2012). Victims face many barriers in extricating themselves from captivity. Many victims don’t recognize their situations as trafficking, and may not know that they are entitled to legal protection. They may hail from countries with weak human rights protections, or may be culturally predisposed to distrust law enforcement and other government agencies. In some cases, victims may feel compromised, because of their immigration status or participation in illegal activity (including prostitution). Perhaps the most important barrier to self-rescue is the extreme surveillance and control that captors exert over victims. Victims’ movements are highly restricted, and their access to information and use of communications technologies are closely monitored. 

To be effective, rescue information must be provided in ways that escape their captors’ notice, address social and cultural issues that deter victims from seeking help, and mitigate significant lag times between when the information is encountered, and when a victim has the opportunity to act.


To develop an effective outreach tool, PPS designers employed a “surreptitious communications design” strategy. Surreptitious communication design is concerned with creating communications channels and messages that are accessible and legible to intended audiences, but which remain unnoticed or inscrutable to others. 

Surreptitious communications occupy a middle space between broadcast media and private messaging, targeting largely anonymous audiences while simultaneously avoiding detection and interference by adversaries.

Pivot was designed to encourage victims to seek help, and to provide on-demand access to a hotline number that could connect them with vital services. Given the tight surveillance and restricted access to communications technologies that characterize victims’ lives, designers focused on ways of embedding information into everyday products that could be accessed by victims without raising captors’ suspicions. After an extensive review of potential artifacts, the design team focused on feminine hygiene products because the majority of victims are female, and because feminine hygiene practices often go unsupervised. Menstrual pads were seen as particularly inconspicuous because they are routinely distributed by nurses and healthcare professionals, who are often the primary or sole point of contact between victims and service agencies (Sabella 2011). 

Designers developed a water-soluble information sheet that is inserted into sealed, nondescript packages of sanitary pads. The insert encourages human trafficking victims to call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s 24-hour hotline, which provides referrals to victim service agencies. To help victims understand their circumstances and the options available to them, it portrays a variety of trafficking scenarios including sexual, agricultural, and domestic labor. To mitigate linguistic and literacy concerns, information is presented in a highly visual, comic-strip format which can be easily adapted to a variety of languages. The information sheet also includes a tear-away tab that features the hotline number disguised as a fortune-cookie insert (figure 2). This tab can be discretely kept and accessed for later use, while the remainder of the information sheet can be safely flushed down a toilet.

Figure 2: Tear-away tab featuring the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline number, disguised as a fortune cookie insert.

Work to date

Approximately 20,000 pads have been distributed to organizations across the United States. The project has also received awards from several international design associations, including the Industrial Designers Society of America and the Interaction Design Association. An evaluation study is currently underway to examine the project’s efficacy in supporting anti-human trafficking intervention efforts.


The Pivot project helps human trafficking victims escape captivity by providing crucial information and facilitating access to vital services. The designers adopted a surreptitious communications design strategy that emphasized low-tech, disposable materials, embedding critical content in everyday products, and encoding messages in familiar, unthreatening formats. While Pivot employed print media and focused on human trafficking, surreptitious communication design approaches are applicable to a broad range of civic media campaigns and formats that attempt to reach well-known but anonymous audiences, while simultaneously avoiding detection or interception by adversaries.


ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour Results and Methodology. 2012. International Labour Office (ILO).

Morris, Kathleen. 2012. Interview with Kathleen Morris, Program Director Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network (WARN) Interview by Tad Hirsch.

Sabella, Donna. 2011. “The Role of the Nurse in Combating Human Trafficking.” AJN The American Journal of Nursing 111 (2): 28–37.

The White House. 2012. “Fact Sheet: The Obama Administration Announces Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking at Home and Abroad.”

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2012. Global Report on Trafficking in Persons: 2012. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
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