Technology to End Slavery


Technology is powerful, and it can be used for good or bad, or sometimes a bit of both. We love that technology has made a lot of things easier, from cleaning the dishes to calling your mom, but technology is not partial; it has not historically demanded that you follow a moral code in order to use it. We have seen how modern technology can make human trafficking even easier for perpetrators, by allowing them to conveniently connect with potential victims - and clients - and helping them to evade or even outsmart the authorities. 

But there have been recent changes indicating that the tide may be turning. With the help of high-tech policing methods, modern slavery may have met its match online.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • In Southeast Asia, all too often, fishing boats are crewed by forced labor. Because these vessels never dock, but instead offload catches and reload supplies at sea, crew members are unable to escape. The MAST initiative, based out of Bangkok, aims to stop this by developing software that analyses data from transponders fitted to fishing boats. These transponders would track vessels’ movements via satelite, and boats that didn’t have transponders activated or failed to regularly dock would raise suspicion. Dornnapha Sukkree, co-founder of MAST, has ten fishing boats assisting in her study to prove the transponders’ effectiveness. If the study is successful, Sukkree hopes to persuade Thailand’s fishery authorities to require all vessels above a certain size to be fitted with transponders. Many countries have a similar system in place in order to regulate fishing, but not to protect crews. In that arena, some illegal fishers switch off their transponders, but even by doing so they raise a red flag to the authorities. Sukkree’s MAST would protect crew members who were trafficked by creating more accountability within the fishing industry.

  • Human trafficking often relies on trickery known as “contract substitution.” Recruiters lure people to a different country with a promising contract that is later reworded, sometimes to a language unfamiliar to the victim. A former head of the American State Department’s Anti-Human Trafficking Operation and current fellow at the Open Society Foundations, Luis CdeBaca, is using a type of distributed database called a blockchain in order to prevent this. The blockchain would ensure that contracts are signed and match those originally given to potential migrants before a government issues work visas. 

  • A third new technology used to combat human trafficking is a software that can identify pimps. In 2017, NYU’s Damon McCoy worked with several other scholars to develop a computer program that has already helped police infiltrate five suspected prostitution rings in California and Texas. McCoy’s program hunts for signs online, such as word choice, punctuation, and even emojis, that suggest a single hand is behind apparently unrelated online sex ads - indicating an organized crime. The program can also link bitcoin payments to the ads - learn more about that in this full paper. The developers want to make the program available for a free download so that police and nonprofit institutions worldwide can use it to find organized crime in datasets much too large for a human to comb through. A later version may be able to detect small variations in the pixels and quality of pictures in order to identify images taken with the same camera. Whoa! A federal agency has been using a similar program since June 2017, which was developed at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg by Eduard Hovy. This program looks for connections between the words and images used in different sex ads, and can draw in data from other sources, such as a Twitter and online chat rooms. While both programs currently focus on sexual exploitation, future versions may be able to pull together information about other forms of modern slavery.

  • Even banking technology can be used to fight human trafficking. The profits made through human trafficking have to be deposited somewhere, and this gives investigators another possible foothold to catching a trafficker in the act. In some countries, banks face steep fines if they fail to screen transactions for signs of human trafficking. To this end, some banks use software which was originally developed to detect money-laundering. Suspicious-activity reports are generated by analysts based on flags raised by the algorithms. Traffickers are working hard to outsmart the algorithms, but the authorities are fighting back by considering screening online messages for hints of human trafficking.

In the end, technology is what we make it, and we can change how technology is used so that it continues to do more good than harm. Take some time to read more about what these activists and developers are doing in order to do just that. Perhaps it will inspire you to seek out or even create new ways to use technology for good!

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About the Author

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Rae Rohm is an avid baker, an enthusiastic storyteller, and a thoughtful writer who hails from Delaware. She is a graduate of Biola University, where she studied journalism. When she is not teaching people about the glories of her home state, she can be found enjoying nature with her sweet but mischievous puppy, singing along to music while running on the treadmill, and making gifts for her family and friends. Rae loves using her skills and talents to bring all people - past and present, near and far - into fellowship with one another.