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Information Technology Becomes Tool to Stop Human Trafficking

By Charlene Porter | Staff Writer | 25 April 2013
Two people with signs reading “You can not own us” and “Stop Child Labor” (AP Images)

People took to the streets of Kolkata, India, in December 2012 to demonstrate their opposition to human trafficking.

Washington — Human traffickers have been exploiting the innocent for millennia and continue to do so today, even while global moral and legal standards condemn the newest methods of enslavement. Many nations have revised laws to better crack down on trafficking, prevent prosecution of victims and rescue the victims over the last decade.

In response, the traffickers have become more sophisticated in running their criminal operations. They use 21st-century communication technologies to operate their enterprises and to try to stay a step ahead of law enforcement. In April, a global technology company announced it will devote new resources to a counteroffensive based in information technology (IT).

"The bad guys, the traffickers, are innovating constantly," said Jacquelline Fuller, representing Google Giving. "And we wanted to empower those who are on the front lines to innovate even faster than the opposition."

Goggle Giving, a nonprofit foundation affiliated with the Internet innovator, announced in early April that it will give a $3 million grant to three nonprofit organizations working together against trafficking to support their development of better ways to use IT tools to gather information about human trafficking and to thwart it.

The three organizations are the Polaris Project, founded in the United States, and working globally; La Strada International, a European network of anti-trafficking organizations; and Liberty Asia, working to coordinate the anti-trafficking efforts of hundreds of groups in Asia.

All over the world, anti-trafficking groups have sprung up to help people ensnared by false promises of glamorous or steady work who are then held isolated, captive and far from any family or friends to help them. Many of these anti-trafficking groups operate telephone help lines to support trafficking victims seeking a route to safety. In so doing, they gather information and intelligence about how human traffickers are operating in their area. Google Giving support of a Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network will provide mechanisms to consolidate and coordinate their information, Fuller said.

With 21st-century technology tools, Fuller said, anti-trafficking groups will be able to "identify trends, how are the traffickers mutating and re-formulating and shifting, and how can we respond to that better."

Fuller spoke as a member of a panel presenting the latest trafficking countermeasures at a conference organized by the Global Philanthropy Group.

She also said that trafficking victims rescued from brothels have reported that mobile phone communications and online advertising are extensively used tools of the trade. Countertrafficking organizations have opportunities to use the same tools to gain contact with victims and lead them to freedom.

New strategies to combat human trafficking can't detract from the basic needs of rescued victims. Appearing at the same conference, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Human Trafficking Luis CdeBaca said his office in the U.S. Department of State must still tend to fundamental needs such as "the shelters, the victims' care, the things that are going to get food in the mouths of trafficking victims around the world."

The U.S.-based Polaris Project, a recipient of the Google award, has taken more than 70,000 calls in recent years from people reporting trafficking or seeking escape from a trafficking ring. Systems and data coordinator Jennifer Kimball says with information gathered in these calls, Polaris hopes to discover where traffickers are hiding their victims, where they are connecting with clients and where they are recruiting new victims.

Sharing that information with law enforcement and using it to liberate victims can provide enough complications for the traffickers that they find their business “is no longer profitable," said Kimball in an online interview. “That's the point where eradication happens."