By: Michael Grothaus
For years human traffickers have used the latest technology to profit from the slave trade, but now software engineers at big data companies like Palantir and Salesforce are enabling anti-trafficking organizations to fight back–thanks to a little funding help from Google.
The latest estimates about human trafficking, which include individuals held against their will in the sex trade and forced labourers in agricultural, industrial, and manufacturing settings, are that at least 21 million people on the planet are currently in slavery. To put that figure in perspective, that’s the equivalent of the entire populations of New York City, London, and Singapore combined. And it’s an industry that generates over $32 billion a year.
I have a particular interest in sex trafficking. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but it’s because I was first exposed to it during the Cannes Film Festival many years ago, only I didn’t realize it at the time. Years after, when I finally made the connection, I began writing a novel about it. Since then, I’ve talked to trafficking victims in Poland and Italy and France. I’ve spoken to a girl who was a source who has disappeared. I know of victims who are so traumatized they hear voices in their heads. In Krakow while researching sex trafficking, I was assaulted and told to leave the city or I would be killed. And in America, I’ve been laughed at when I’ve told people the subject of my novel because many here don’t believe that modern-day slavery exists–or if they do, they think it’s only something that happens in Asia or Eastern Europe or Africa. They have no clue that it goes on in big American cities, and in suburbs, and at truck stops across the country.
The billions of dollars are being made off the backs of people no different than you or I–they’re just living in hell. Slaves in Asia who have literally been born and raised in a rice mill and have never stepped outside of it. Seven-year-old girls abducted in Russia or Brazil or America who are taken to foreign countries where they don’t speak the language and are told that going to the police is pointless, because the police are in on it; that if they try to escape, their family at home will be killed. These are people who don’t even feel like people anymore. They are property. Like your iPhone.
The thing about human trafficking is that it is not as “underground” as you might think a slave trade would be. Human traffickers use the latest technologies to their advantage–and do so exceptionally well. But now, thanks in part to a $3 million grant from Google, a group of three anti-trafficking organizations–Polaris in the U.S., LaStrada International in Eastern Europe, and Liberty Asia–are using innovative technology from big data partners Palantir and Salesforce.com to launch The Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network, which aims to turn the tide in the fight against modern-day slavery.
How Good Guys Are Using Technology Against Traffickers
“The traffickers are very savvy on the use of technology and the good guys need to get more savvy. We need to enable them to use the tools of the 21st century to take this on.”
That’s what Jacqueline Fuller, Director of Google Giving, tells me when I ask her how software can help fight trafficking. Fuller’s interest in trafficking stemmed from her time at the Gates Foundation. She was in India helping launch an HIV prevention initiative when her research into the commercial sex industry there opened her eyes to the realities of sex trafficking.
Upon returning to the States, Fuller joined Google.org–the philanthropic arm of the search giant that develops technologies to help address global challenges. “We look at how can we attack real-world problems through our engineers, through tools that we actually build and develop ourselves,” she says.
Part of Google.org is also its charitable funding arm, Google Giving, which runs the Global Impact Awards that support non-profits using technology and innovation to tackle tough human challenges. “I’m a big believer in the power of technology for social impact,” Fuller says. “I think that’s an area that’s very underfunded.”
And this year the Global Impact Award went to anti-trafficking organizations Polaris Project, LaStrada International, and Liberty Asia due to their burgeoning work with using big data to build an interconnected grid of modern-day tools to fight human trafficking.
“Trafficking isn’t a very static or a very monolithic thing. There are uses of technology that traffickers are using that we haven’t even learned yet. It’s very fluid and the folks working on trafficking need to be as nimble as the traffickers are in our ability to innovate, in our ability to leverage new technologies to make our work more effective,” says Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris Project, one of the recipients of the grant.
Myles tells me that traffickers use technology like everyone else does–to make their lives easier. They use social media to recruit victims, they use mobile devices with built-in GPS to track women under their control, so they always know where they are and if they are servicing clients, and they even use Internet groups as a marketplace to buy and sell women and forced labourers.
Traffickers also use technology to get online customers via porn sites–even if those customers don’t know that the women they’re watching are being held against their will. “There are webcam sites that exist where traffickers force women to be involved in live online shows. Traffickers are forcing women and girls to strip and do sex acts over webcams for sex buyers that are in another country but are interacting with the women nonetheless,” Myles says.
So given the traffickers’ skills with using technology to their advantage, what do Google, Polaris, and the rest think the answer is to fighting the tech-savvy slave trade?