Technology in the Fight Against Trafficking: Tracking Criminals and Helping Victims

By Mary Donovan, CLC Contributing Writer

Mary DonovanFrom mobile phones to big data analytics, technology can help in the fight against human trafficking. Access to a phone can enable a victim to call friends, family, or a hotline for help. Data trends enable us to study the patterns of trafficking and to know where to combat it. On the other hand, technology is definitely part of the problem of trafficking, as traffickers are quickly incorporating technology trends and social media in their recruitment of victims. This is why it is crucial to use technology as part of the solution.

While each incident of human trafficking differs in specifics, all have three clear steps, the acquisition step, the transportation step, and the final step of forced labor. Technology can help in each phase.

With access to technology, human trafficking can be avoided in the first place. Technology could directly connect a worker with a safe job, eliminating the need for a middleman, who may exploit the worker. Think of the impact of AirBnB and Uber on the hotel and taxi industries. What if workers could locate honest labor recruiters directly with technology? The supply side of human trafficking would diminish.

The Centro de los Derechos de Migrants launched a website,, which allows temporary Mexican workers to share their experiences working in the United States. The website also accepts reviews by text message and telephone. Workers can warn other workers, so labor abuses are not perpetuated and new migrant workers do not unknowingly put themselves in positions to be trafficked.

Technology can be used to increase transparency and to disrupt the market of trafficking through uncovering traffickers’ attempts to transport victims. Forensic evidence, photographs, and identification of trafficking routes can help detect traffickers.

For example, DigitalGlobe, a company that provides high-resolution images of the earth, is able to spot slave ships in the seas. Using powerful satellites, seas that have long remained lawless can now be policed. DigitalGlobe also investigates brick kilns in India and fisheries on Lake Volta in Ghana, two major industries where child labor exists.

In this digital age, there is a record of anything that happens online. The rise of mobile money makes transactions and payments easier to track. Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer currency that allows users to transact money directly. It is completely transparent, with records of all exchanges, allowing investigation of suspicious payments. Financial data is important, because it is often where investigators discover the first signs of trafficking.

In the last phase of trafficking, forced labor, technology can lead to a way out. A new report from the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, Technology and Labor Trafficking in a Network Society, addressed the role of technology as a strategy for escape. The report describes the story of a woman from the Philippines who was stranded in Malaysia and deceived by traffickers. She was thrown in prison and interrogated, but the Philippine government was able to intervene and help her because she had hidden a phone in her jail cell.

Unfortunately many migrant workers do not have access to technology, and are both geographically and technologically isolated. We need to trace the crime in these situations. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is using Memex, a kind of technology that sees into the hidden corners of the Internet, to fight both sex and labor trafficking. Memex scans job advertisements on the ‘dark web’ that cannot be found or linked together with normal search engines.

Another way to fight trafficking is to increase quantitative data and analysis. Human trafficking thrives in environments without data. Complex supply chains allow forced labor to remain hidden. If we increase data collection and analysis, causes and trends can be examined so support can be mobilized and action can be taken. With increased investigation, data collection, and sharing of that data, we can know about the specifics in which this transnational crime operates. Quantifying data also signifies the importance of a problem. In other words, what can be counted, counts. Numbers can raise awareness and call attention to a hidden crime.

Another way technology can reduce trafficking is to raise consumer awareness. The ability to trace goods allows consumers to know if the products they buy are made with forced labor, and let businesses know if there is anything suspicious in their supply chains.

The US Department of Labor released an app called “Sweat and Toil,” which shares information about child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking around the world. It allows users to browse countries and products for forced labor, review laws and regulations in these countries, and find out what governments can do to reduce this worldwide problem. There are a number of apps such as GoodGuide allowing conscious consumers to be aware of the environmental and social impacts of their purchases. GoodGuide ranks a wide range of products and gives them health, environmental, and social scores. Red Light Traffic is an app that allows people to anonymously report suspected cases of human trafficking. It also informs people of the “red flags” of human trafficking, so it can be identified and reported.

Partnership for Freedom issued a three-part competitive technology challenge on innovative solutions to end human trafficking. Rethink Supply Chains is the second part.

The submission deadline for the Rethink Supply Chains challenge has passed, but stay tuned as finalists will be announced this month. Submissions focused on the areas of communication, improving transparency of the labor process, and creating tools to map and share information about labor conditions in supply chains. This challenge will hopefully add wonderful new initiatives to the few already mentioned above.

Modern technology can amaze us everyday, with rapid innovation and the creation of things we never imagined could be possible. Like all tools, technology can be and is used for both doing bad and doing good. Using the power of technology in the fight against human trafficking will bring new, exciting, and unprecedented results.