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Tech Tonic

Digital activism is permeating the anti-trafficking field. In an effort to raise awareness among a broad audience, social media, online petitions and websites such as the Slavery Map (intended to document global instances of slavery) and Slavery Footprint are being created to educate and involve the public in discussions on human trafficking. The latter website, for instance, is an interactive quiz that evaluates the extent to which the participant may be complicit in human trafficking activities in everyday life. Unfortunately, while the website taps into the oft-ignored issue of supply chains, it is accompanied by a “dramatic commercial depicting modern day slavery” that arguably detracts from the message delivered through the quiz. Cue the sex trafficked women and the cameo by Abraham Lincoln.

In any case, other impressive sounding tools, such as crowdsourcing (asking for ideas or donations from a large group of people using Facebook, for example), digital mapping (compiling data to create a virtual image, like the Slavery Map above), natural language processing (enabling computers to derive information from, for instance, advertisements for sex) and facial recognition have collided with efforts to intercept human trafficking.

This is one area that has captured the attention of the private sector, which is starting to invest in anti-trafficking technology. To address online child pornography, Microsoft introduced the PhotoDNA project: image matching/ facial recognition software that “creates a unique signature for a digital image, something like a fingerprint, which can be compared with the signatures of other images to find copies of that image”. This tool was created to find pictures of children and assist in the removal of sexually explicit images from the internet. Microsoft also announced an academic research grant of $185,000 to provide empirical evidence to understand how technology affects sex trafficking. Even the White House is excited about providing “cutting edge technology tools to aid law enforcement’s efforts to bring traffickers to justice, as well as new online applications to help link victims with much needed services.”

New tools are being created for use in various platforms to involve the public at large. For instance, a new child labor app allows users to take a picture on their phone whenever they see a child working on the streets, say, in construction or selling food, and log the location. Currently a pilot project operating in Colombia, the Colombian Family Welfare Institute receives details submitted by users. It uses those details to identify trends in child labor in Columbia, and submits information to service providers for verification with the aim of finding the identified children and getting them into formal education. As the program is rolled out, we are interested in any risk assessment undertaken by the app’s designers or their stakeholders on the safety of children, since strangers are being encouraged to photograph them. Additionally, innovations like this one replicated elsewhere need to be similarly partnered with organizations with the capacity to handle large caseloads that result from increased public reporting – in other words, social providers who are able to sift through and verify cases of children in need. Such an initiative should also have sustainable funding and ongoing monitoring and evaluation processes in place.

Support of anti-trafficking initiatives by tech companies was boosted by Google’s recent announcement of a $3 million grant to Polaris Project, Liberty Asia and La Strada International to create the Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network. The idea here is to “build a broader safety net for survivors of modern-day slavery and develop a more coordinated global response for victims. The alliance will identify human trafficking trends and inform eradication, prevention, and victim protection strategies”. Hotline data collection and sharing includes information such as call origin, victim age, and type of exploitation. This is intended to “enhance the participating organizations’ ability to better share, analyze and act upon their data in real time” including collaboration with policymakers and law enforcement.

Undoubtedly, there is added value in private sector involvement in anti-trafficking efforts. Traffickers have always been savvy and it should come as no great surprise that they may manipulate technological advances in an effort to keep trafficking activities covert. As a result, communication tools including social media and other forms of emerging technology, such as Smartphone GPS capability, may assist in facilitating trafficking. They also hold great potential to assist in anti-trafficking initiatives.

While we look forward to the continued development of anti-trafficking tech solutions, there is a concurrent need to research the ways in which technology is be used in trafficking. Existing research in the U.S. in this area largely focuses on sexual exploitation, justified through the supposed difficulty in detecting cases of labor trafficking. As the University of California (USC) Technology and Human Trafficking Initiative explains, from their experience, sex trafficking is easier to track:

[…] few studies to date have comprehensively explored how technology contributes to forced labor practices. Because of limited data on labor trafficking and technology, and the more widespread attention and therefore higher visibility of sex trafficking across digital networks […]. A clear knowledge gap exists in evidence-based research that examines the nexus of technology, labor trafficking, and forced labor practices, and we encourage further research in this area.

The policy implications for unchallenged research have already been reflected in campaigns against online advertising. For instance, Craigslist, an advertising website forced to shut down its Adult Services section in 2010 based on criticism claiming it supported sexual exploitation, has been the subject of extensive research. USC research examining the role of online classified ads lamented:

The Craigslist case is striking because of (1) the lack of credible empirical research and aggregate data on trafficking and online technologies informing the debate,(2) the lack of more cooperative cross-sector partnerships and coordination, and (3) a missed opportunity to explore more creative solutions to the problem of trafficking online.

On a related note, we would exercise caution against assuming the infallibility of tech data collection (as with all data collection) to provide information it is not necessarily capable of providing. For example, according to Polaris, the new global hotline will “tell the anti-trafficking community which campaigns are most effective at reducing slavery, what sectors are undergoing global spikes in slavery, or if the reduction of slavery in one country coincides with an increase right across the border.” We are uncertain about how the Google-funded global hotline will be operationalized. However, if is intended to function as a data sourcing tool, those who intend to analyze the resulting data need to understand the limitations of such a system, acknowledge the gaps and, particularly at this stage, implement a stringent monitoring and evaluation component to track ongoing progress. As additional organizations are included in the process, for instance, it is important to note that not all hotlines cater to the same understanding of trafficking; in local contexts it should not be assumed that a shared definition exists – legally or operationally. Moreover, there is an inherent bias in this kind of data: cases only reflect identified victims and reported cases. It may more likely provide information about which hotlines are easily accessible, and the profiles of callers. Other future issues in constructing a global hotline data collection system may include equipping partners with necessary technical training to gather and analyze data and, where required, continuing to build trust in data sharing between organizations globally to better inform the objectives of the project.

Additionally, while advances in technology may suit investigations and prosecutions by providing ways to intercept, record and evidence crime, the use of crime-fighting technology should take into account concerns about potential infringement of human rights and incorporating a victim-centered approach. For instance, building trust between all stakeholders (including, perhaps, third party technology developers as well as victims) must include conversations that clearly delineate between criminal justice intelligence gathering and data generated for research or service provision, including risk assessments for potential victims. This might include, for example, policy guidelines on what to do with information gathered from the internet which may implicate a victim of trafficking in other crimes.

More attention could be given to initiatives addressing the business side of trafficking. Understanding financial transactions involved in human trafficking is vital for law enforcement efforts, including money laundering and identity theft, research and even victim restitution efforts (such as confiscation and asset recovery). Promising private-sector initiatives include an investigation by JP Morgan Chase which uncovered human trafficking and led to:

a regime for detecting human trafficking through technologically-tracked financial footprints and other collectible data. [Moreover]The establishment of such new counter-trafficking methods can inform other corporations about the impact that human trafficking has on their businesses and how to utilize existing security programs to address the issue.

In the quest to both involve the private sector in anti-trafficking initiatives and invest in anti-trafficking technology aids, there is a need for ongoing work with survivors and service providers to uncover the gaps in which technology may play a bigger role – perhaps in areas such as rehabilitation or reintegration. For now, we are hopeful that the continued creation and application of future tool remains inclusive regarding the scope of trafficking.

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