Human Trafficking in a Digital World

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THIS ARTICLE WAS CONTRIBUTED BY CAROLINE BALICK, A 10TH GRADE STUDENT IN NJ. 

As the founder of a Girls Who Code Club in my town, I tend to view societal issues through a digital lens. As a teenage girl, I view the epidemic of human trafficking from the standpoint of young women, so many of whom are victims of this form of modern day slavery. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and as this month concludes with National Freedom Day on February 1st, I examine the double edged sword of technology and human trafficking. 

According to the US government, 25 million people are victims of human trafficking for sex and labor. Technology plays a significant role in recruiting and trapping victims, but also in fighting human trafficking. According to Forbes, Facebook and WhatsApp can be a migrant’s best tools but also a huge threat, providing a way for smugglers to advertise. The migrants are then charged exorbitant fees and stolen into trafficking. The United Nations would like social media platforms to step up and do more. According to Leonard Doyle, a UN spokesperson “After one page is shut down, smugglers can easily reopen another. There’s no way to tell the scope of the program on Facebook or WhatsApp.”

Technology is being harnessed to fight back. The Annenberg Center at USC has launched a Technology & Human Trafficking Initiative to study the current use and broader implementation of communication technologies on the international fight against trafficking. Some key findings include: laws should ensure that workers have access to social networks, data analytics can be used to combat human trafficking, divulging personal information on social media can be used to exploit and disaster response technologies represent a new avenue for trafficking intervention.

According to Forbes, seven technologies being used to fight human trafficking include: 1) Spotlight by Thorn is designed to aggregate data for law enforcement from online commercial sex ads, 2) DARPA’s Memex program uses an advanced search engine in the anti-trafficking space, 3) the National Human Trafficking Resource Center by Polaris includes a hotline, accessible by email or online tip reporting form, 4) Microsoft’s Photo DNA monitors illicit online ads, 5) CyberTipline, which has received over 4 million tips, 6) NHTRC’s SMS-based textile, with which victims can text the shortcake “BeFree” for a discreet way to access the hotline and 7) anti-trafficking public service announcements, such as MTV’s Exit campaign. 

Abolishion shares four apps to help fight human trafficking including BAN (a game that educates users about human trafficking), Slavery Footprint (users answer questions that give a score showing how many slaves work to support your life), Free2Work (shows which products are involved in human trafficking, can be used while shopping) and Red-light Traffick (focusing on recognizing, reporting, recovering and releasing victims.) The US Department of Labor has also released an innovative business-focused app that supports private-sector efforts to eradicate forced labor from global supply chains.

We are all armed with camera phones.  Recognizing the signs of trafficking enables all of us to share and report trouble. Signs that someone might be trafficked include: not holding his or her own travel documents, appearing frightened and not being able to speak for oneself and not being allowed to move about alone.

The digital landscape of human trafficking is both treacherous and hopeful.  Human trafficking is global and local. We must master new tools to stay ahead of the traffickers and rescue the victims.