CCLP forum explores new technological tools to combat human trafficking

SAN FRANCISCO – Innovative tools to disrupt human trafficking and slavery were discussed at a CCLP forum held on Friday.

Drawing on the experiences of senior level experts from industry, government, NGOs and academia, the forum highlighted a number of new digital and Internet-based techniques to detect individuals and organizations engaged in sex trafficking and forced labor.

One technology, developed this year at USC, conducted powerful text searches for common phrases and even misspellings to identify individuals and groups engaged in illegal activity. It can also be used to discover young victims of sex trafficking and forced labor. Recent tests have scanned major websites and over a billion tweets. Once individuals’ digital signatures are detected and established, data footprints can be assembled to track their histories. Further, victims can potentially be monitored as they move across domestic and international borders.

(Note: Under the forum’s ground rules, participants could not be quoted, and certain other specific information has been withheld.)

Another demonstration featured a successful approach to locating child pornography online that could be adapted to address trafficking. The method effectively “tags” thousands of the most offensive child pornography images with compressed ID signatures. Whenever any of those images are uploaded on certain widely used web sites, the individual accounts used to upload offending images are identified, and the images are removed from the Internet. To date, the technology has identified thousands of images of child pornography, with no false positives.

An additional technique focused on money. Working with one of the largest U.S. banks, researchers searched large data bases of financial transactions and discovered some of the characteristic patterns of trafficking, which led to the identification of previously unsuspected categories of businesses run by organized criminal enterprises.

Despite the success of these and other new tools, there are some simple “fixes” that still elude law enforcement and anti-trafficking NGOs. For example, attempts to create a universal help line number, similar to 911 or 411, have run into insoluble political and jurisdictional challenges.

And a widely used anti-slavery help line in the U.S. cannot accept text messages – only voice calls. There was wide agreement that, at a time when young teenage or preteen victims are accustomed to texting as a primary means of communication, this is a serious shortcoming.

Experts also noted that traffickers themselves are adept at using new technologies to advance their illegal businesses and to screen their activities from detection. With the enormous profits generated by trafficking and slavery, incentives remain significant for organized criminal activity across continents and across the U.S.

This forum was part of a continuing initiative on combating human trafficking and slavery, and follows the release of a CCLP report in September on approaches to disrupting global trade in sex trafficking and forced labor. This was also the subject of a CCLP forum last year in Washington, D.C.