Nobody wakes up in the morning a decides that exploiting other humans and trafficking them as slaves is a good way to spend the day. But it happens anyway.
Human trafficking is outcome that stems from the opportunity to make money.
During the recent IBM Think Summit, Caroline Taylor, the Vice President & CMO for Global Markets at IBM and Chair of the Board of Trustees at Stop the Traffik discussed human trafficking and how technology is being used to disrupt the business model of modern day slave traders.
Taylor said human trafficking is a relatively “low risk crime” because government controls are weak and corruption in some parts of the world is rife. For example, slavers in West Africa send scouts to impoverished countries like Mali. They identify vulnerable children and offer them “training in a trade”.
In reality, they are shipped to far away cocoa plantations where they are forced to work for no money. Many of the children, as young as 10 years old, suffer from infections that come from the cuts and slashes they suffer as they handle machetes to cut the cocoa plants.
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One of the reasons this business model works, said Taylor, is “western blindness”. She said the difference between our outrage when an illegal sex worker ring is discovered and cheap chocolate or coffee comes down to awareness. The only way you can have a $1 t-shirt is if the cost of labour is zero.
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In order to thwart human traffickers, Stop the Traffik uses technology to engage in intelligence-led prevention. They do this by simply following the money. Using data analytics, they look for patterns of financial transactions by working with banks, information from survivor narratives and news reports to build predictive models through the application of artificial intelligence and natural language processing.
The goal is not always prosecution. When the focus shifts to protecting vulnerable people it leads to a different goal; breaking up the business process. In legitimate businesses, we call this disruption.
For example, one of the methods used by Stop the Traffik is to place ads in social media. When the organisation becomes aware of potential activity by traffickers, they place highly targeted ads that specifically address potentially vulnerable people in tight geographical regions. They might learn, through information from banks and law enforcement, that a trafficker is looking for young women in part of Europe. And past reports can help identify which ports they plan to use to move their victims. So, they place ads alerting target populations.
As well as putting the potential victims on alert, it signals to the criminals that the risk of being caught is too high and the risk/reward equation no longer stacks up.
“We stop making it easy to be profitable,” said Taylor.
Other efforts, such as Seattle Against Slavery (SAS), use chatbots to intercept conversations from people who are trying to procure sex from minors and other exploited parties. During last year’s Twilio Signal event, SAS used AI to detect when someone was trying to access a service from an exploited person. A chatbot intercepts the conversation and directs the potential procurer of services to education about child exploitation, perhaps offering support services to break them out of a damaging behavioural cycle in order to reduce the risk of recidivism.
We are all aware that there are vulnerable people that are exploited by predatory criminals. But it’s not a hopeless problem, bereft of solutions. Organisations like Stop the Traffik and Seattle Against Slavery show that technology can be used to hit the criminals where it hurts most – their wallets.
While disrupting business models will likely mean the criminals will move to other means of making money, such as drugs and weapons trade, we can reduce the human impact of some of their activities through the use of technology.
Anthony Caruana attended the IBM Think Summit 2019 in Sydney as a guest of IBM and Twilio Signal in San Francisco as a guest of Twilio in 2018