How Technology is Turning the Tables on Human Traffickers

A child victim of human trafficking holding onto a fence

While I'm not usually one to get teary-eyed and blubbery from the oeuvres of political speechwriters, on Sept. 25, 2012, President Barack Obama gave a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting that was frank and passionate. That day, the president denounced human trafficking, calling it "a debasement of our common humanity that tears at the social fabric of our communities, distorts markets, endangers public health, and fuels violence and organized crime."

Although the modern slave trade isn't something that many of us ponder at length about each day, Obama's speech is a testament to the fact that human trafficking is alive and well in the 21st century. The majority of its victims are children and women between the ages of 18 and 24 — 43% of whom are sold into the sex trade. Moreover, the masterminds behind these criminal operations are earning annual profits of around $32 billion. Their success can be attributed to their savvy use of technology to seal illicit deals, leaving little trace of their transactions behind. Recently, however, those working against human trafficking have decided to fight fire with fire by using technology to uncover criminal rings and beat traffickers at their own game.

Many experts now believe that big data is the most important new weapon in the fight against modern slavery. When it comes to fighting human trafficking, technology is key. Law enforcement agents need constant access to a stream of big data in order to cross check and reference stolen and lost travel documents, background check suspected criminals, and reveal patterns in criminal behaviour. Old fashioned police and detective work is no longer sufficient to fight criminals who are using smartphones and bitcoins. Police now have to crack codes to access information saved on password-protected devices and analyze large quantities of data in order to monitor the fluid and ever-changing activities of criminals who have proven themselves capable of adapting to new methods and utilizing new tools to turn a profit.

Luckily, tools such as data mining, mapping, computational linguistics, and advanced analytics can be used by the government, NGOs, and law enforcement agencies to further anti-trafficking goals. In 2010, the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute (ISI) and the Center on Communication Leadership and Policy collaborated to develop prototype software designed to detect possible cases of sex trafficking of minors online, and they soon realized technology's ability to make human trafficking more detectable and more traceable.

In order to promote these types of experiments further, Google began shelling out grants to organizations that aim to use technology to fight human trafficking. In April, Google gave $3 million to help three anti-trafficking organizations — the Polaris ProjectLa Strada International and Liberty Asia — collaborate on a Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network. The network shares and analyzes data from local hotlines to find and help victims, locate trafficking activity, and work to prevent trafficking as it's happening. Palantir Technologies, a company that has helped tackle fraud in the U.S., donated its analytics platform and data integration software to the project. Meanwhile, the company is working with Polaris to improve the organization's call tracking capabilities. Thus far, Polaris has collated data from 72,000 calls and identified over 8,000 victims.

Data gleaned from mobile networks and other electronic devices create a trail of evidence that can be used as an invaluable tool in identifying, tracking, and prosecuting traffickers. As Obama so aptly stated, "We are turning the tables on the traffickers. Just as they are using technology and the internet to exploit their victims, we are going to harness technology to stop them." It's going to take a lot of dedication and ingenuity to stay one step ahead of traffickers, but those behind these new technology-based initiatives seem up for the challenge.