As technology advances, human traffickers have harnessed tech tools to help them recruit, control, and exploit victims. However, anti-human trafficking groups have also been utilizing technology to oppose human trafficking.
Below is a list from the Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking of Persons (ICAT), naming ways that technology can combat human trafficking:
- Compiling and analyzing data: It is impossible for any one government or organization to collect all relevant online information about human trafficking. Instead, data tools are used to collect data and provide useful reports.
- Supply chain accountability: Some corporations have implemented blockchain technology to supervise their international supply chains to hopefully decrease the risk of human trafficking at every location.
- Artificial intelligence: Artificial intelligence has many potential uses for anti-human trafficking efforts, including programs that independently engage with potential human trafficking buyers or flag transactions that may indicate human trafficking.
- Facial recognition: Facial recognition technology can sort through thousands of photos to identify pictures of sex trafficking victims.
- Tools to support victims and survivors: This approach includes technology like apps allowing outreach workers to interview potential victims in another language and voice-operated apps that ask workers to report labor exploitation in their workplace.
All of these technologies can be used to aid investigations and prosecutions, spread awareness, and learn more about human trafficking networks.
A great example of anti-human trafficking groups utilizing technology is a research lab at MIT. There, researchers have been “developing machine learning algorithms that automatically analyze online commercial sex ads to reveal whether they are likely associated with human trafficking activities and if they belong to the same organization.” These algorithms help counteract the tech advancements of traffickers, who have become more security focused by using techniques like decentralized ad distribution to avoid detection.
The lab is also working to create better resources for human trafficking prosecutions. The researchers are developing systems that use tools like indexing, facial recognition, and identifying trafficking “signatures” such as branding tattoos. These systems may help prosecutors to rely on artifacts more than victim testimonies, which would decrease the risk of retraumatizing victims when testifying.
Despite promising advancements, there are still reservations about technology’s role in the anti-human trafficking initiative.
For example, a recent article by Milivojevic et al. discusses concerns that the anti-human trafficking narrative around technology can over-simplify a complex issue–reducing it to “bad guys,” “helpless victims,” and “saviors” and framing technology as a catch-all solution. The researchers caution anti-human trafficking groups to instead use technology to learn about the complex vulnerabilities and social conditions that allow exploitation to occur.
Similarly, Businesses for Social Responsibility addresses the lack of technology directly supporting victims and vulnerable populations. In a survey of over 200 anti-human trafficking tech tools, 38% focused on victim identification, but only 2% focused on victim case management, a discrepancy showing the need for more tools providing victim resources.
In addition to tools for engaging victims, ICAT identified areas for improved technology in the anti-human trafficking movement:
- Increased collaboration between national, international, and private sectors.
- Better protection of victims’ privacy when collecting/analyzing data.
- A stronger legal framework to prosecute online trafficking activity.
- More tools and training for anti-trafficking groups.
Ultimately, it is important to be aware of the possible negative consequences of technology in the effort to end modern-day slavery. However, with a well-researched, evidence-based approach, technology has the potential to help combat human trafficking and support survivors.
ICAT, “Human Trafficking and Technology: Trends, Challenges and Opportunities,” (July, 2019), www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/report/human-trafficking-and-technology-trends-challenges-and-opportunities/Human-trafficking-and-technology-trends-challenges-and-opportunities-WEB…-1.pdf.
Foy, K., “Turning Technology Against Human Traffickers,” MIT News (May 6, 2021), news.mit.edu/2021/turning-technology-against-human-traffickers-0506.
Milivojevic, S., Moore, H., & Segrave, M., “Freeing the Modern Slaves, One Click at a Time: Theorizing Human Trafficking, Modern Slavery, and Technology,” Anti-Trafficking Review, Issue 14, 2020, pp. 16-32, doi.org/10.14197/atr.201220142.
Darnton, H. & Nestor, P., “Global Tech Companies, Partners Identify Tools to Fight Human Trafficking,” (January 17, 2019), www.bsr.org/en/our-insights/blog-view/tech-companies-tools-to-fight-human-trafficking.