Fighting Human Trafficking with Technology

Technology, like most things, is never wholly bad or wholly good. Though it takes a lot of criticism for helping to facilitate human trafficking, it is also leading to a variety of ways to help fight the practice.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has stated that human trafficking “is the fastest-growing business of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world” as of 2011. Aiding the organized crime, Reuters explained, was how sex traffickers are quicker to pick up on new technology than the government and law enforcement has resources to combat as it is now.

“I’d actually say technology in the broad sense facilitates and perhaps even increases human trafficking overall from what existed pre-Internet. Like drugs and child porn, humans are bought and sold on the dark web (and sometimes the mainstream web), though humans have been bought and sold in some manner for many thousands of years,” said Jessica Hubley, co-founder and CEO of  AnnieCannons, a nonprofit working to train survivors of human trafficking in computer programming, in an interview with MediaFile.

Ashton Kutcher, whose own foundation Thorn is focused on developing digital tools to fight exploitation, has even explained on the Today Show how human trafficking is happening easily online, “just like everything else now.”

The BBC created a 360 video about human trafficking in Mexico, inserting audiences right into the “horrors.” They are taking advantage of new technological experiences to highlight the problem and what contributes to it.

All this is painting a dark picture of the technological world. But this humanitarian crisis, which the International Labour Organization estimates has 4.5 million people trapped into sex trafficking, is prompting innovation to provide light in the darkness.

The aptly named Beacon of Hope is taking advantage of the Internet of Things—when everyday items are hooked up to the internet—to allow victims of sex trafficking to alert law enforcement of their location. The technology allows a small beacon to be hidden in tampons and sanitary napkins available at places like gas stations, rest stops, stadiums and casinos. When activated, they alert local law enforcement to the victim’s location. They can easily hide the items in a bag, in their shoe, or somewhere else on their person to keep police aware of their location without tipping off their captors.

The twin sisters who created Beacon of Hope were inspired to help women who have been forced into the trafficking pipeline when their own aunt was abducted, as they told Kill Screen. But survivors of human trafficking themselves are also developing ways to fight back.

The site  was developed by graduates of AnnieCannons. It tracks sexual assault and creates “a crowdsourced map of sexual assault statistics built in coordination with other social justice groups. It seeks to eliminate victim-shaming and build community, as well as providing a platform from which survivors can organize for political action against rape culture” said Hubley.

Hubley explained that her organization is about putting power and agency back in survivor’s hands, while incorporating volunteers from a field that is striving to fight the negative effects technology can create.

“The thing about trafficking is that it is caused by a lot of other social problems: poverty, discrimination, violence, misogyny, etc. We build solutions that target those causes, while helping survivors rebuild their lives,” she said.

But you don’t have to be a nonprofit or be familiar with any sort of code to use technology to fight the practice. Anyone was able to experience the journey that the BBC presented, but they can turn to the app TraffickCam in order to do something about it.

The app, which is available for free on Apple or Google app stores, was developed to allow people to enter their hotel name and room and upload photos. The goal is to be able to cross reference these images with pictures from pimps in order to quickly find and apprehend those involved and save the people being trafficked.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Molly Hackett, the leader of an organization that combats the exploitation of children called Exchange Initiative and Nix, found the inspiration for the app came when working with police to find a child who was being trafficked. It took three days after a picture was posted, and she knew that was too long with today’s technology.

Hubley knows, for all the problems that arise for people trying to fight human trafficking and exploitation from technology, that the field is also filled with people who want to work together to find the solutions.

“A lot of people, including a lot of people in technology, care about this issue. Technology can help reach them and help bring their ideas together in service of solutions. Plus, software sort of has a knack for solving problems more cheaply than they used to be solved,” she said.

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