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Human Trafficking Meets a New Foe in Advanced Tech

by Kristina Drye, on Mar 1, 2021 11:13:08 AM


In 2015, I sat at a coffee shop in Bosnia listening to two men tell each other the story of a young woman. According to the men, the young woman was sitting on the winter street, a baby nestled in her arms. Concerned about the lack of crying from the baby, an observer called the police. Upon arrival the police discovered that the young woman was carrying a corpse, the body still being used to elicit donations from passersby who thought it asleep. I thought about that story later that week as I walked down Sarajevo’s main boulevard. I passed a young Romani boy, blind, perhaps seven years old, playing music in the middle of the road, begging for change. I had been told not to give him any money because he would never see a dime of it. I did not know it then, but in the space of a week I had heard and seen two harrowing examples of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is not limited to Bosnia and Herzegovina: it is a worldwide phenomenon. According to the International Labor Organization, there are 40.3 million human trafficking victims worldwide. Human trafficking is one of the most profitable categories of violence, generating approximately $150.2 billion annually. For example, reports by the United Nations have indicated that terrorist organizations use human trafficking as a means of raising funds to support their activities. Leading human trafficking scholar Siddharth Kara found that while slavery in the old world provided a 15-20 percent annual return on investment, slavery today in the form of human trafficking provides between 300-500 percent annual return.

The brilliance of human trafficking as a category of violence – and one of the reasons it so often goes undetected – is that the means of success (measured in profit from human activity) is externally presented as illicit activity performed by the person being trafficked. In other words, trafficking marauds as criminality of the victim, hiding the true perpetrator from any visible association with illicitness.

It is also no accident that the vulnerable are most often victims. In a vicious cycle, those that are vulnerable at any stage of their lifetime are more likely to be exploited, rendered vulnerable in other ways, and precluded from true reintegration into society because of their experiences.

Advanced technology like GOST can be used to solve many of the issues above, ranging from helping victims get access to bank accounts to identifying terrorists that are able to operate due to human trafficking revenue. Despite this, advanced technology use cases -whether GOST, or other tools in a suite of digital solutions - are often separated into silos that inhibit, rather than enable, progress.

For example, technology is often siloed upon marketing and sale, sold to and used in distinct categories like financial spaces or federal spaces; NGOs or security spaces; and victim-centered spaces or criminal-centered spaces. The messaging is different, and the outcome of each is often inaccessible to the other. Our mistake is that these siloes are inextricably interconnected. When we fail to recognize the interconnectivity of illicit finance (finance space), malign actors (criminal-centered space), national security and criminal or radical networks (security space), and human-centered solutions (NGO space), we fail to solve the problem of human trafficking effectively.

There are many ways that AI and other advanced technologies can be used together, rather than separately, to combat human trafficking.

First, human trafficking efforts have been primarily victim-centered. This is because it is nearly impossible to identify the traffickers. AI can help to solve this- by tracking patterns of behavior on the open and deep webs, identification is more effective and efficient. Second, because human trafficking is the fastest-growing source of revenue for international criminal networks, and the third-largest source of revenue overall, identifying a trafficker means that other security concerns can be addressed too- not only are victims saved and traffickers stopped, but the actions and networks that those profits enable can be addressed as well. In short, when advanced technologies like GOST are used to stop a human trafficker, they can also stop terrorism, or drug trafficking, or corruption, too.

Third, often victims are the ones identified as criminals. With AI, networks can be identified in conjunction with behavior, and human adjudicators can make a more informed assessment about criminality. Because tools like GOST use publicly available information, rather than just static lists, a whole-of-body assessment can be made about the respective entity: criminal, or victim?

And lastly, as identified above, victims often are reintegrated into society with little to no financial record, precluding them from successfully reintegrating into the society they were taken from. Behavioral-based AI can help here, too. By allowing financial industry professionals more precise prediction and assessment of risk based on human behavior rather than written record, more victims can be issued bank accounts and loans, speeding their reintegration and helping to prevent a reversion to criminality as a means to survive.

We must do better, and we can do better. A true solution to human trafficking will take a long time and many actors, of which advanced technologies like GOST are only a part. But they are a part – and a crucial one. Our first step is to desegregate our approaches to integrating advanced technologies, including their methods of marketing and sale, as components of our anti-human trafficking programs. When we employ tools like GOST in a whole-of-effort approach, we do not have to choose if we will stop traffickers, or help victims. It is possible to do both.


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