Combating Human Trafficking with Mobile Phones

All over the world, thousands of women, men, and children become victims of human traffickers. Trafficking in persons is a growing criminal industry making more than $150 billion of dollars (US) in illegal profits by intimidating, using force, and robbing victims of their basic freedoms and coercing them into sexual work, forced labor, and other forms of servitude against their will. According to the International Labor Organization, there are 21 million victims of modern slavery around the world at any given time including 4.5 million in forced sexual exploitation. Many of the victims are children.

What’s more, these crimes have been exacerbated by the rise of technology in the criminal world. Modern technology facilitates the recruitment of victims, coordination, transaction and exchanges, and organization of criminal rings among the human traffickers. Because technology such as mobile phones and social networking sites are widely used by traffickers to conduct their operations, it is crucial to understand how technology is facilitating trafficking in the 21st century in order to counteract it more effectively.

According to a study about the role of technology in human trafficking by researchers at the University of Southern California (USC), government agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), law enforcement, scholars and private sector companies can further anti trafficking goals of prevention, protection, prosecution of criminals by incorporating tools such as advanced data analytics, data mining, and computational linguistics into their researching efforts.

The use of data analytics has been gaining popularity among many organizations including those working to thwart human trafficking. One organization in the United States, Plantir, is leveraging data to track down traffickers and is a great example of how the utilization of the latest technology can create useful and innovative tools to further human rights causes. Using an analytical software platform, Plantir allows non-profit organizations and other agencies to extract data from particular reported human trafficking incidents and quickly enlist help. In addition to location information, the platform identifies nearby service providers that can assist victims of a crime. Once the data is collected, it can be analyzed by these organizations and sent to law enforcement officials to address in the most appropriate way.

However, although data analytics can be helpful once the crimes are reported and located, tracking and convicting traffickers has remained complicated due to the secretive nature of the trafficking business. The main complication lies in that it remains difficult to find the victims and get them to speak up. Often, the victims of human trafficking are fearful and ashamed, manipulated and threatened by their traffickers, or do not realize they are victims of illegal crimes. Furthermore, the sophistication of some traffickers’ methods makes it hard for observers to detect whether coercion and forced servitude have been involved.

To combat this discouraging predicament, victim assistance has to become as sophisticated as the criminals’ illegal networks, if not stronger. Accomplishing this will require heightened awareness in communities — nationally and internationally — and enabling people to recognize the signs of human trafficking. Also, they will need to have easy access to tools to report any suspicious activities and trafficking crimes.

This is where innovative technological solutions can play an important role. An excellent extension of what Plantir is doing with data analytics would be to develop mobile apps that would utilize data analysis on an easier-to-reach scale for regular people. If private citizens could also participate in anti-trafficking efforts by using an app, cross-organizational data gathering efforts may benefit from additional information about possible incidents. After all, it is often concerned citizens, tourism industry and airline employees, and others who notice suspicious signs of human trafficking operations first. Thus, facilitating their access to information and a crime-reporting platform would be highly beneficial in combating human trafficking rings.

Mobile technology and human trafficking

Smartphone apps are the future. More people are constantly connected via their mobile phone and an increasing amount of them are using smartphones and apps. Mobile apps could motivate more people to take action in combatting human trafficking and can facilitate the pathway for victims to speak out about their experiences.

Building technologically innovative solutions via apps to address the cause and effects of human trafficking crimes are important for the anti-trafficking field to remain technologically forward. Below are some interesting examples of currently functioning apps in the anti-trafficking space around the world. Some apps are locally based, some are countrywide, and others are designed to reach across different areas of the globe.

Freedom! App

Orphan Secure, a non-profit organization that helps fight child sex trafficking around the world, recently launched this app that helps communities and individuals anonymously and safely report cases of sex trafficking in 10 languages. Furthermore, the app allows users to report information using three categories — Suspicious Activity, Victims, and Traffickers. When app inputs are received by Orphan Secure and other interested organizations, data is analyzed and sent along to relevant parties for further necessary action.

GraceCity App

This innovative human trafficking resources app from activists in Sacramento, California, was developed to offer victims community resources in their area. The app is able to source thousands of first responders across the United States to respond to various human trafficking issues and provide users with useful resources. Users can locate nearby non-profit agencies, organizations, medical professionals, law enforcement, pastors, social workers, therapists, and other service providers to help victims of trafficking in their emergency needs and recovery efforts.

SafeNight App

The app offers trafficking victims access to support such as hotel placements for those in need of urgent shelter, access to social services and economic empowerment advice to those in need of help. Users are able to sign up and donate a room for victims and will then receive requests from trained staff at domestic violence organizations to ensure the safety of everyone involved.

Report-Save Life App

Android smartphone app “Rapoto@ Shpeto” (Report-Save Life) is available for use worldwide but specifically targets human trafficking in Albania. The joint project by USAID, Vodafone, World Vision, NetHope, and the government of Albania, will allow users to quickly report suspected human trafficking on any mobile device for free and locate services for trafficking victims. Some features of the app include a direct dialing option for the national human trafficking hotline, displays a map with services near the victim’s location, and allows the user to report suspected trafficking practices directly to authorities.

BAN Human Trafficking App

This app is funded by the European Union through the project Balkans ACT Now! It educates users about human trafficking and the prevention of it. Users are able to play an interactive game on the app to learn about the different stages of human trafficking – from how the traffickers recruit their victims — to recovery and social reintegration of trafficked victims. The app aims to familiarize users with these processes of human trafficking so that they are better equipped to recognize such situations and protect themselves and others from these crimes.

You Have a Voice App

Victims of human trafficking will have an opportunity to answer questions about the nature of their exploitations in their native language using a new app currently in development. The app’s founder believes that users will be more comfortable answering sensitive questions via an app than they would be communicating directly with law enforcement officials. This would encourage more victims to speak out about their mistreatment and facilitate the capture of involved traffickers.

1343 Actionline App

A joint effort between the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) of the Philipines and the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO), the app allows users to access a 24/7 hotline to report human trafficking activities in real-time. Users also have the option to attach photos and videos as evidence of illegal trafficking activities.

OFW Watch App

Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) Watch app connects victims of trafficking to other Filipinos in the area who speak the same language or are from the victim’s hometown or are in the same profession. In addition to reporting potential labor abuses or reaching out for help, users can also register themselves in the app’s database to become involved in the OFW community nearby through volunteering projects. The app currently has more than 100,000 OFW members and the community is constantly growing.

Trafficking in Trinbago App

Using the AppMakr4NonProfits mobile app creator platform, the app provides information for users in Trinidad and Tobago about human trafficking in the region, including how to identify, prevent and report it. Users are educated about how to recognize signs of human trafficking and how to avoid becoming a victim of forced labor. The app also has a “Report It” button that allows the user to connect to local law enforcement agencies, a child-abuse line, and an 800-TIPS line.

The proliferation of mobile phone usage all around the world has facilitated communication and coordination efforts of criminals in recruiting, transporting and exploiting more victims than ever before. To decrease their access to new opportunities to harbor more victims for commercial sexual exploitation and illegal forced labor, it is important to counteract these exchanges with new and improved tools that are up to date with today’s technology.

The ideas facilitated by these apps are a great start in expanding current technology into the anti-human trafficking sphere. Adoption of these tools in more cities and countries is essential in preventing these abominable crimes against humanity and in combating human trafficking on an expanded global level and across international borders.

Only the timely employment of technological innovation to help victims and the adoption of useful tools to identify and catch criminal networks will keep pace with the human trafficking industry’s abuse of technology for illegal purposes.

References

References

“Forced Labour, Human Trafficking and Slavery.” International Labor Organization. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. <http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/lang–en/index.htm>.

“Help Fight Human Trafficking through the 1343 Actionline Mobile Application.” Cfo.gov. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.cfo.gov.ph/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2399:help-fight-human-trafficking-through-the-1343-actionline-mobile-application-&catid=108:cfo-press-release&Itemid=839>.

“Human Trafficking,” UNODC. UNODC, n.d. Web. <https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html?ref=menuside>.

“HUFFPOST LIVE: Fighting Human Trafficking through Better Data Analysis.” Palantir. N.p., n.d. Web. <https://www.palantir.com/2013/09/huffpost-live-fighting-human-trafficking-through-better-data-analysis/>.

Latonero, Mark, PhD. “Technology and Labor Trafficking in a Network Society.” (2015): n. pag. USC Annenberg Center on Communication, Leadership and Policy. University of Southern California, Feb. 2015. Web. <https://communicationleadership.usc.edu/files/2015/10/USC_Tech-and-Labor-Trafficking_Feb2015.pdf>.

Latonero, Mark, PhD. “The Rise of Mobile and Diffusion Technology – Facilitated Trafficking.” (2012): n. pag. USC Annenberg Center on Communication, Leadership and Policy. University of Southern California, Nov. 2012. Web. <https://technologyandtrafficking.usc.edu/files/2012/11/HumanTrafficking2012_Nov12.pdf>.

Maza, Cristina. “How Technology Is Turning the Tables on Human Traffickers.” Mic. N.p., 25 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. <http://mic.com/articles/77303/how-technology-is-turning-the-tables-on-human-traffickers>.

“Orphan Secure, an Anti-Human Trafficking Organization, Launches Its US Operations Ahead of Super Bowl XLVIII.” PR Newswire. PR Newswire Association, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. <http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/orphan-secure-an-anti-human-trafficking-organization-launches-its-us-operations-ahead-of-super-bowl-xlviii-242453771.html>.

Shapiro, Jay. “Trafficking in Trinbago App Goes Live.” PR Web. N.p., 7 Apr. 2014. Web. <http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/04/prweb11735391.htm>.

Sorsano, Freda Mae. “Former HK Domestic Worker Develops App for OFWs.” Rappler. N.p., 13 Sept. 2015. Web. <http://www.rappler.com/move-ph/balikbayan/71890-ofw-friendly-anti-trafficking-mobile-apps>.

Spaho, Elda. “New Smartphone App, Hotline Make Reporting Human Trafficking Possible for More Albanians.” World Vision. N.p., 24 June 2014. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. <http://www.worldvision.org/news-stories-videos/human-trafficking-app-albania>.

“What Is GraceCity?” The Grace Network (n.d.): n. pag. Fight Human Trafficking in Sacramento. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. <http://www.thegracenetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/GraceCity%E2%84%A2-Expansion.pdf>.

About Violetta Tutunik

Violetta Tutunik is a freelance writer and consultant with a background in economic and political development, energy and sustainability and human rights. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Bachelors in Political Science from UCLA. She enjoys writing about technology and sustainability, taking photographs and traveling.

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