Big data, Python and the fight against Human Trafficking
Fiction and cinema have long envisioned technology to be a double-edged sword. Technology has succeeded in creating outstanding wonders that a naked eye would fail to distinguish from magic or even divine miracles. But technology is also prophesied to bring about an apocalypse. Is this technology-led futuristic dystopia only an irrational nightmare, or is it a rational possibility?
Human trafficking is as old as mankind itself. With the advent and proliferation of mobile phones, social networking sites and emphatically the Internet, human trafficking too has emboldened itself. Human trafficking is basically any kind of illegal movement of humans. It may be common knowledge that slavery has thrived even in the biblical times. But the sad truth is that even after thousands of years since the inception of civilization, human trafficking still remains an abominable evil that the society needs to wipe out.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 2014, which reveals that in 2011 the 49% of the victims of human trafficking are women, followed by 21% girls, 18% men and the remaining boys. UNODC elaboration on national data further concludes that from 2010-2012, the most common form of exploitation detected in females is sexual exploitation with 79% and in males is forced labor with 83%. Disturbingly, International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that three out of every thousand people in the world are victims of forced labor, and that is nearly a whopping 21 million victims among which 4.5 million people are in forced sexual exploitation.
Is technological advancement a Pandora’s box when it comes to human trafficking? One cannot say ‘no’ with absolute certainty because advances in technology are undoubtedly making human trafficking more complex, more efficient and more profitable. The reason is ridiculously obvious, technology enables the traffickers to easily connect with the victims remaining anonymous themselves. Besides, they can connect with other traffickers and operate on a large scale trafficking network.
How does technology really help the traffickers? Apparently, through seamless information exchange made possible by the web and mobile phones. The internet gives the traffickers boundless opportunities to effortlessly meet new people whom they can victimize. The task of spotting and targeting potential victims could now be done easily.
Online job advertising is a popular approach to procure victims. This method is cheap, efficient and involves fewer risks as the traffickers usually hide their actual identity. The anonymous online advertisements recruit victims by giving them false job descriptions. The gullible victims are deceived into taking up jobs usually in a foreign country as models, domestic servants and the like. Only once they arrive do they realize they have been victimized. The traffickers also use mobile phones with built-in GPS to track their victims and keep them always under control. The anonymity or false identity of the traffickers in the online world often makes it hard to track the ones who are actually pulling the strings.
If technology can be used to target victims, can it be also harnessed to combat human trafficking? Of course, anti-trafficking organizations, Polaris Project, La Strada International and Liberty Asia were presented the Global Impact Award by Google in 2013. The $3 million was given for these non-profit organizations for data collaboration to disrupt human trafficking – which is currently an ill-famed industry generating more than $32 billion in illicit profits every year.
Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google, is committed to develop technologies to combat global challenges. Google Giving is the charitable sub-division of Google.org which is dedicated in supporting nonprofits to address global human issues among which human trafficking is a very high priority.
In addition, Palantir Technologies is offering its data integration and analytics platform to support Polaris Project. Salesforce.com also supports Polaris Project by helping its hotline center to scale its call tracking infrastructure globally. These partnerships are aimed to achieve more than just helping trafficking victims, they are striving towards a global anti-trafficking crusade to eliminate human trafficking through sharing of useful data to take effective measures. Increased global cooperation along with appropriate data sharing and timely effective international strategies are streamlined to help victims, prevent trafficking efforts and implement sound policies to curb this modern slavery.
Polaris runs the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) which is a national anti-trafficking hotline in the USA. This toll-free hotline is available anytime anywhere in the whole country and in more than 200 languages. Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris Project, says this hotline is next generation hotline which is not just confined to telephone calls, but also operates mobile, email, online reporting as well as SMS messaging. It is soon set to become multi-modal. Polaris’ partnership with Palantir has made it possible to map locations of reported human trafficking cases. This information is used to understand migration patterns and design attacks on human trafficking networks using open data and big data. Microsoft too has undertaken remarkable efforts to fight human trafficking. It includes:
• Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit (DCU): Thirty countries around the world work together to assist law enforcement to combat all kinds of cybercrime.
• PhotoDNA: A product which creates unique signature for images used to identify online child pornography.
Other products and services from Microsoft include Child Exploitation Tracking System (CETS), Computer Online Forensic Evidence Extractor (COFEE) and Guardian App.
The technological assistance is not restricted to large organizations alone, individual efforts too are being made. Eric Schles, an anti-slavery researcher developed TraffickingGrab, a tool apparently based on Python useful for scraping websites for instances of human trafficking especially sex trafficking.
If you are familiar with any technological efforts and advances in eradicating the shameful industry of human trafficking, feel free to leave your comments below.