Technology is both a blessing and a curse for officials fighting against human trafficking.
With the rise of social media and a world growing smaller through communication platforms, alongside the accessibility of online advertisements and encrypted messaging apps, traffickers have a host of technologies at their fingertips to help entrap victims, advertise their services and cover up the trafficker’s own illegal activity.
However, new technologies are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are playing a key role in eliminating human trafficking. Some are used to discover and rescue victims, others to identify networks of perpetrators. Many of these advancements are beginning to empower governments to source the root of trafficking rings and stop the activity at its core. In turn, this puts a new and heavier responsibility onto banks and corporates to innovate and improve their systems to themselves spot any nefarious activity and feed this back into the global effort against trafficking.
At the heart of each case of human trafficking is a victim, but knowing the identity of this victim is difficult. Hundreds of images of abused children are shared online every day – even if all of these are flagged, many will be duplicates of cases that have already been actioned. Understanding whether an image is a duplicate or a new photo – which would require a new response from law enforcement – is difficult as such images are hard to track.
Previously, traffickers wanting to proliferate an image could make small tweaks to it, such as adding marks or a resizing the photo. This creates a distinct image, making it impossible to trace back altered duplicates using traditional methods.
Now, technologies are being used to outsmart traffickers and distinguish new and existing images faster. For example, Microsoft PhotoDNA imposes a fine grid over an image and assigns a numerical value to each square, representing the “hash” – like a DNA signature for the image. Rather than scanning for whole images, the program matches a numerical hash against a database of known illegal images to match duplicate images instantly.
To help law enforcement turn this innovation into positive action, Thorn – a tech start-up founded by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore to fight child sexual abuse and trafficking – has partnered with Microsoft to allow organisations to add to and access a centralised hash sharing database. New images that have not been hashed are reported as belonging to a new victim – meaning law enforcement is alerted to a new victim sooner. This accelerates victim discovery and therefore, hopefully, rescue.
Preventing victim entrapment
Many perpetrators of modern day slavery use contract substitution to entrap their victims. Recruiters offer a lucrative contract to lure individuals abroad, but this is then reworded – often in a language the victim does not understand. Innovators are hoping that blockchain technology may soon help prevent this deception, if governments were to only issue visas when signed contracts are confirmed by the blockchain as matching those originally provided to the individual.
Traffickers can use technology to obscure their activity, but technology is also revolutionising the way officials are finding criminal networks. The key is joining the dots of information from NGOs, news sources, databases of known traffickers and details available to institutions such as banks.
Traditional human intelligence is gathered on the ground in a particular country by charities, looking at news sources, hearsay and other resources at their disposal. With many charities operating within one country alone, and much trafficking happening between countries, this information often then needs to be shared with governmental and intra-governmental organisations to compile a profile of a trafficker or activity more broadly. This traditional intelligence, however, is usually not enough to rapidly identify a network of traffickers.
Now, institutions like banks are helping combine this human intelligence with innovative technologies which joins the dots of information from these organisations with the bank’s own internal data and other third party sources. Using big data, artificial intelligence software is able to find links between individuals and their transactions, addresses, associates and company ties, alongside a mass of other relevant information which may suggest nefarious activity when seen in its proper context. By resolving these separate entities, AI tech can build a detailed picture of a criminal’s network, putting an individual transaction or relationship in its wider context. Using a combination of human intelligence and digitally compiled insight, organisations can identify traffickers and their connections.
While some technologies are accelerating trafficking, others are vital in tackling against this devastating crime. The combination of human intelligence, artificial intelligence and the sharing of information is starting to pay dividends.
Whether helping to identify victims, preventing them being ensnared or detecting traffickers themselves, innovative technology is helping at every stage of the fight against trafficking, enhancing processes to make every effort more efficient, effective and accurate – and, ultimately, life-saving.
Side note to this article/report by Alexon Bell: I will be following up on the human trafficking issue in the near future with a Commentary. It will include key links to Fact Sheets, Quantexa’s specific involvement, including other organizations on the front lines. You may consider becoming involved (directly, donations to key organizations, etc.), and those sources will be added as well.
Bill Owen – TechNewsBlog.net