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Good Tech Can Tackle Human Trafficking
December 18, 2019 Blog

By Harriet Green, Chairman & CEO, Asia Pacific, IBM

Editorial note: Over the last decade, technology has enabled disruption in almost every industry. Yet, there are still some areas in which technology can do a lot more. While disruption has mostly worked in making businesses more efficient and creating new types of businesses, criminal activities are relatively still the same. Crime is still on the rise despite the use of technology to prevent it.


The introduction of facial recognition cameras, AI and the use of drones has somewhat improved the way we take actions towards crime. Data has allowed authorities to have more information on criminals and their movements from small car thieves to organised criminal activities to human trafficking. But the fact is, criminals are still at large and continue to come up with newer methods to evade the authorities. We can only hope that technology will eventually enable authorities to have more information on crime and act swiftly.


The cold death of 39 Vietnamese migrants in England cast new light on human trafficking.  The United Nations estimates that 40 million men, women and children have been forced into bonded labour, child marriages and prostitution. The Bar Council reports that there are roughly 2.5 million undocumented migrants in Malaysia.

It is hard to imagine that freedom is elusive to pockets in society as we enter the third decade of the 21st century.  The Global Slavery Index 2016 estimates that human trafficking is now one of the world’s most lucrative organised crimes, generating more than US$150 billion a year with two-thirds of its victims, or 25 million people, in East Asia and the Pacific.

Human trafficking is considered modern-day slavery and demands a combination of interventions to stem its flow. In Malaysia, the discovery of migrants camps and mass graves in Wang Kelian in 2015 remains a bane. The coalition of Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Council (MAPO) and Joining Hands Against Modern Slavery recorded 543 victims placed at shelters in the first half of this year, compared to 1,474 (2018) and 2,945 (2017).

The statistics do demonstrate Malaysia’s resolve to overhaul its foreign workers’ management system and enforcement training to reduce human trafficking. But the paradox about human trafficking is that many victims are hidden in plain sight, and society is simply reluctant to get involved.


Use Tech to Tackle

Two free apps emerged in recent years to rally public support to fight against human trafficking. The apps are “Be My Protector” and “Stop App”, and both provide the basics needed to submit reports with the option to remain anonymous or allow your data to be stored. In fact, “Be My Protector” app that is available across South-east Asia, received 300 tip-offs on alleged human trafficking from April 2018 to February 2019.

Advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition and geo-location can improve the reach of such apps. The “Stop App” was improved through a collaborative process between IBM Ireland and Stop The Traffik team to allow submissions to be made from anywhere in the world, quickly and anonymously via video, text and photos. And it can be done in 8 languages.

The submissions are reviewed by expert analysts who can then alert authorities if the circumstances warrant action. Behind the scenes, there is now more coordination and better technology to analyse information. Until recently, it was not possible for different organisations to cross share data efficiently and did not have AI to help analysts.


Good Tech Frees

One such promising development with “Stop App” is the first-ever international data hub that connects NGOs, law enforcement and financial institutions. These include Liberty Shared, Europol, Western Union, Barclays, and Lloyd’s Banking Group. This Traffic Analysis (TA) Hub, enables members to collect, share and analyse data in the digital cloud. AI is applied to analyze clues and unexpected patterns of data that betray the movement and machinations of trafficking rings.

The TA Hub is probably the first always-on AI resource that bridges public, private and not-for-profit sectors worldwide. With 100,000 meta-data rows, it is one of the largest repositories of data describing possible trafficking-related activity. One could not have imagined this to be a reality until a few years ago. But today, combined with the power of AI and Cloud, law enforcement will be better able to analyse and match incident patterns, and generate predictive analyses of future incidents based on the volume and history of incidents at a certain location.

The TA Hub will also enable anti-trafficking analysts to predict future incidents of human trafficking before they occur. For example, if there are a certain number of incidents reported during a specific time of year with a similar financial pattern, one could better predict these occurrences happening in advance. The genesis of the tech lies in using AI’s natural language processing capabilities. After gathering insights about what analysts were primarily interested in learning, IBM trained Watson AI in 2019 on what terms were most important. Watson will learn more terms over time, using additional public data.

The combination of training the model specifically for the human trafficking domain with both private and public data will allow NGOs, banks, law enforcement and intelligence officers to go beyond what they currently know and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Technology has made it easier for us to combat human trafficking. We can all do our part by downloading the  “Stop App”  or “Be My Protector” on our smartphones to report suspicious activities. Together we can uphold the basic human right to freedom. Good Tech is helping the world save millions of lives and billions of dollars.