How technology is taking down human trafficking

By Catherine Cheney 07 February 2016

Christopher White, who created the Memex search program used to counter human trafficking, gives a TED talk. Photo by: Oklahoma State University / CC BY-NC-ND

The San Francisco Bay Area, host of the 2016 Super Bowl, is both a hub for human trafficking and the source of some of the best ideas for how to respond to the problem of modern day slavery.

The Super Bowl may not be the human trafficking hotbed some have claimed it to be, but the annual football championship game, seen by over 100 million people, has become a platform for activism to draw attention to sex trafficking and other forms of modern slavery.

More than 20 million people are enslaved throughout the world — in sex trafficking, domestic servitude, child labor and other forms of slavery. Anti-trafficking groups work every day — not just on Super Bowl Sunday — to identify and prosecute traffickers, and tech entrepreneurs from places such as Silicon Valley have helped develop new weapons that are aiding in the fight.

Big data

Human rights organizations and Silicon Valley technology companies are coming together to identify new ways to leverage big data in the fight against human trafficking.

The executive director of Polaris, which operates a national hotline for human trafficking, met representatives from Palantir Technologies, a data analysis firm, at a summit Google Ideas organized in 2012 with activists against the trafficking of drugs, weapons, organs and humans.

Within a few weeks, hundreds of protocols and thousands of resources were streamlined on a single dashboard for call center specialists to support victims in need.

The Polaris data team is using the information it collects from communication with victims to analyze and respond to larger trends among trafficking circuits.

When major events such as the Super Bowl earn reputations for sex trafficking, hard data can inform whether that is the case, where to place advertisements for the trafficking hotline, and what level of law enforcement should be present.

The same summit led to a collaboration between Polaris and two other organizations operating trafficking hotlines: Liberty Asia and La Strada International. The three organizations are coming together to share data across networks. They received $3 million in the form of a Google Impact Award to create the Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network.

Searching in the dark

This time last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — DARPA — announced Memex, a search engine for sites that are not indexed by commercial search engines like Google.

While Google crawlers browse and index the surface Web, they do not reach into the “deep Web,” which is estimated to be up to 500 times larger. For example the Tor network, part of the deep Web that was developed by DARPA for covert Internet use, has evolved into a virtual meeting place for people from sex traffickers to terrorists who want to keep their Internet activity out of sight.

Memex has already enabled law enforcement agencies to connect the dots and follow the trails in new ways. They have identified patterns in online ads for sex work that have led them to human trafficking rings.

Mobile platforms

Labor Link uses mobile surveys to collect information from factory and farm workers. It has reached half a million workers in 16 countries, and now its designers plan to build out a trafficking module to complement questions on working conditions.

Last week, Good World Solutions, the organization behind the Labor Link platform, was announced as one of the finalists for an innovation competition organized by the Partnership for Freedom seeking technological solutions to address labor trafficking in global supply chains.

With the recognition that socially responsible business must play a central role in the fight against human trafficking, new regulations such as the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act are requiring companies of a certain size to report on actions they are taking to eradicate forced labor in their supply chains.

“Most companies are just not well equipped for that,” Heather Franzese, executive director of Good World Solutions in Oakland, California, told Devex. “Labor Link ensures that workers can report anonymously through a trusted system protecting their identity.”

While Good World Solutions focuses on apparel and electronics, other finalists, who will travel to Washington, D.C., for a finalist accelerator, focused their software or service on the fishing and seafood industry and the mining and extractive industry.

For example, Ulula, a company that uses mobile technologies such as SMS and interactive voice response to connect with offline communities, is developing a mobile payment and feedback service for migrant workers that aims to increase transparency and accountability in recruitment.

Following the money

As traffickers find new ways to hide their profits, major financial institutions have developed new strategies to identify the transactions connected with sex exploitation and forced labor.

Banks are joining the fight against human trafficking by going beyond merely identifying red flags. Western Union, for example, was the first global payments company to join the Blue Campaign, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s effort to combat human trafficking.

Banks are able to narrow in on particular businesses (such as nail salons) and types of transactions (such as credit card charges after hours), in order to find patterns that lead them to the source. 

A double-edged sword

Coalitions such as the Thorn Tech Task Force, which brings in partners ranging from Microsoft to Snapchat in the fight against child sexual exploitation, are creating networks of digital defenders to develop new strategies to fight their adaptive adversaries.

It can be all too easy for Silicon Valley technologists sitting behind computer screens to feel far removed from the problems they are solving — even when they are occurring in their own backyard — so it is essential that they keep the behavioral component of this work in mind.

“When it comes to human trafficking, technology is necessary, but not sufficient,” Franzese said. “If workers don’t trust the technology that you’re asking them to interact with, then you won’t get reliable information. Likewise if you collect information from them and they don’t see change, then you lose their trust.”

Deloitte is working with a range of clients to help put an end to human trafficking. The consulting firm’s recent report with Free the Slaves on “the freedom ecosystem” highlights the power of public-private partnerships to remove the conditions that allow modern day slavery to exist.

“Technology is really a double-edged sword,” Nes Parker, a manager at Deloitte, told Devex. “It can be used to proliferate as well as fight human trafficking.”

Deloitte’s San Francisco office participated in a training on recognizing potential indicators for human trafficking the week before the Super Bowl, Parker said. While technology is an important tool to combat trafficking, so is basic awareness.

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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